Lehigh Likely to Require Covid Booster Shots for Students, Staff

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Lehigh University Coronavirus

Memorial Hall houses the Admissions office at Lehigh University in Bethlehem (FILE PHOTO)

Lehigh University will likely require students, faculty and staff to receive a COVID-19 vaccine booster shot sometime early in the spring semester, the school’s COVID Response Team announced Wednesday. The spring semester begins on Monday, Jan. 24.

The school already requires members of its community to be vaccinated against COVID.

According to Lehigh’s COVID-19 Dashboard, currently 97.9 percent of students–including 97.7 percent of undergraduates and 98.5 percent of graduate students–are fully vaccinated against the disease, with 97.1 percent of staff and faculty fully vaccinated.

The message about the likeliness of a booster requirement was published on the university website Wednesday and noted that “the waning effectiveness of vaccines over time and mounting evidence that boosters are important to protect people against the Omicron variant (of COVID)” are factors in the decision.

“The timing of this requirement will be decided based on regional case counts and the spread of the Omicron variant in the region; therefore, we strongly encourage (students) to get (their) booster if (they) are eligible over the winter break,” it said. “Details describing how to provide information about booster status and deadlines will be provided soon.”

The university’s Covid Response Team noted that as the fall term wraps up at Lehigh, COVID case counts remain low, as they have for much of the semester.

Lehigh Covid Vaccine

More than 97 percent of students enrolled at Lehigh University are vaccinated. The Bethlehem institution has a COVID vaccine requirement in place for students, faculty and staff.

As of Wednesday there were three active cases among students, all of whom live in off-campus housing in the Bethlehem area, according to the dashboard’s data.

The data indicates that since Aug. 9 there have been 126 cases among students who reside off-campus and 286 cases among students living in on-campus housing at Lehigh, most of which were diagnosed between late August and mid September. During the same period, there were 71 positive tests for COVID among faculty and staff members at the university; a figure that included three active cases as of Wednesday.

Although the Lehigh community’s case numbers are currently low, the same cannot be said for the Lehigh Valley, which along with much of Pennsylvania has seen a surge in new COVID cases in recent weeks. Statewide, on average more than 8,500 new cases a day were being reported as of Dec. 15–the most cases per day since early January of this year and more than twice the number of new cases that were being reported as of Nov. 1.

As of Wednesday, the seven-day rolling average for new cases in Northampton County was approximately 284 per day; a total just shy of the record of 286 cases a day, which was set just over a year ago on Dec. 10, 2020. (Source: CovidActNow.org)

In spite of ongoing, large-scale vaccination efforts by public health agencies and the recent approval of the COVID vaccine for children ages 5 to 11, the county’s vaccination rates continue to increase at a slow pace, with 61.7 percent of residents fully vaccinated as of Dec. 15. In the past month, according to Pennsylvania Department of Health data, the number of fully vaccinated county residents has increased by 1.9 percent.

Meanwhile, hospitalization rates for COVID remain high in Northampton County, where as of Wednesday 64 of 65 ICU beds were filled, according to Department of Health and Human Services data reported by CovidActNow. Fourteen of the patients in ICUs had COVID, according to the hospitalizations chart, which has tracked the burden being placed on local intensive care units since early September 2020. Currently, available ICU capacity–just three percent–is the lowest it has been since tracking began.

In announcing more restrictive visitation rules at hospitals due to the ongoing surge in COVID cases last week, St. Luke’s University Health Network officials said approximately 80 percent of the COVID cases they are treating are in unvaccinated individuals.

Meanwhile, many public health officials have expressed concern that COVID case numbers and hospitalizations will continue to increase in the coming weeks due to holiday travel and gatherings, which in most places may be held without restriction.

“For those traveling over the holidays, we encourage you to be aware of any travel restrictions/requirements and the case counts in the areas where you will be traveling,” Lehigh University officials said in their announcement about the booster requirement.

For more information about vaccinations, boosters and the response to COVID in Pennsylvania, visit CovidActNow and the Department of Health’s COVID website.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) site also has information about boosters.

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