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01/04/2022 - Impact of COVID-19 on Winter Term Operations

To: The Campus Community

From: Kevin M. Gilmartin, Vice President for Student Affairs
David A. Tirrell, Provost
Thomas F. Rosenbaum, President

Date: January 4, 2022

Re: Impact of COVID-19 on Winter Term Operations

The highly transmissible Omicron variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus continues to spread rapidly. Los Angeles County alone reported nearly 45,000 new cases over the holiday weekend. The Caltech community is not exempt from these global trends and is experiencing an increase in case activity. Over the last week, Student Wellness Services (SWS) has reported in two separate positive case updates that a combined 118 members have reported testing positive through the COVID-19 Reporting Application. This is the largest number of positive cases in our community recorded over such a period. Results of the term's first round of on-campus surveillance testing will be available soon on the COVID-19 Dashboard.

While these case counts are a sobering reminder of the reality we face, it is important both to remember that our community is more highly protected than at earlier points in the pandemic and to take extra precautions as we resume on-campus operations. Experience suggests that the Omicron variant may cause less severe disease, with few hospitalizations among highly vaccinated and boosted populations. At present we have nine students in isolation, with no reports of severe illness.

The sheer totality of cases already has and will continue to be the source of disruption to campus services and support operations because of staff shortages. This is being felt acutely in Student Wellness Services and the on-campus surveillance testing program, where the combination of case volume and staffing shortages may result in delays in communications and access to symptomatic testing resources for employees. We will prioritize operations and procedures most critical to the health and well-being of campus and are working with managers during this period to ensure as much flexibility and coverage as possible. We need to be patient and care as a community for one another as we face this latest evolution in the pandemic.

Our focus is on keeping the community safe while continuing to fulfill Caltech's mission of forefront research and education. Our decisions about any change in approach will be informed by the data. As we learn more from the results of expanded surveillance testing and other reporting mechanisms, we will provide updates.

It is critical that we continue to be vigilant and take all recommended precautions to ensure the safest possible campus environment for living, working, and studying as we return from travels and gatherings with family and friends. In order to continue to fulfill our research and education mission, we remind you that the Institute has taken the following steps:

  • All enrolled undergraduate students and graduate students in residence are required to test themselves prior to returning to campus.
  • Throughout the term, all undergraduate students, as well as all graduate students living in Caltech housing or enrolled in in-person classes, must submit two samples per week to the surveillance testing program. In the first week, students who were previously enrolled in the surveillance testing program must submit three samples, with 48 hours between submissions.
  • All employees who report on site are encouraged to participate in surveillance testing up to twice a week.
  • This first week of Winter Term is being conducted remotely, with in-person instruction delayed at least until January 10. Information about instruction during the week of January 10 will be communicated by January 7.
  • Employees who are able to work from home are encouraged to do so.
  • All students and employees will be required to get a COVID-19 booster shot. Although COVID-19 can still infect individuals who have been vaccinated and boosted, the vaccine and booster have proven to reduce hospitalizations and deaths due to the virus.

With these tools at our disposal, we will be closely monitoring the impact of this virus within our community and we will be making adjustments as the situation warrants. We will provide updates on next steps as soon as we have data from this initial phase of return to campus life, learning, and operations.

In the meantime, please continue to take the following steps to mitigate the spread of the virus:

  • Stay home if you are ill, have a fever, or have otherwise been instructed to quarantine or isolate.
  • Immediately notify SWS if you are ill with COVID-like symptoms, have had a positive test for COVID-19, or have been exposed to anyone with a positive test for COVID-19.
  • Participate in Caltech's surveillance testing program when you report to campus.
  • Regularly wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds or use hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol.
  • Wear a high-quality (N95 or KN95) mask when indoors.