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COVID-19 on the rise at University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign

An employee at the Illini Union's Quad Shop hands out a rapid COVID-19 test on Friday, Sept. 1, 2023. The university has handed out about 4,000 test kits so far this semester.

URBANA — As the fall semester ramps up, so too, are the cases of COVID-19 at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.

Students and staff can still access free, take-home, COVID tests on campus. Two weeks in, those tests are in high demand.

Awais Vaid is director of the university’s McKinley Health Center. He said the testing demand – plus wastewater samples – shows there’s a spike right now. 

“It’s not at the same level as previous years. But it does take a few weeks to reach its peak. We may be a little bit early,” Vaid said.

He said the university has given out 4,000 test kits to students, faculty and staff at locations like McKinley, the Illini Union and the Illini Union Bookstore. Students also have access to kits at vending machines in some libraries and dining halls.

The university discontinued its saliva-based SHIELD testing sites soon after President Biden ended the COVID-19 emergency declaration in May. 

Vaid said hospitalizations are relatively low in the community and COVID rates seem to be lower at wastewater sites away from campus.

Will U of I reinstate mask or vaccine mandates?

Students relax on the University of Illinois Main Quad in Urbana on Friday, Sept. 1, 2023.

Vaid doesn’t expect U of I to return to mask or vaccine mandates.

“When we’re dealing with a brand-new virus or disease, we put those mandates in place because it gives us time to understand it. I think we know how to deal with COVID now. There are treatments that are pretty effective,” Vaid said.

He recommends wearing a mask if you’ve been exposed to COVID and wearing a mask in public spaces if you are immune compromised.

He emphasized that students should stay home when sick, even though they may be reluctant to do so when they first arrive back on campus.

He said the scientific community is watching a new variant, called BA.2.86, that has mutated significantly and could cause a spike in cases like the omicron variant did last year. So far, there are only a handful of cases in the country and world, he said.

Will U of I offer the latest COVID-19 booster shot?

A new COVID-19 booster is coming out this fall, but it may not be offered to students at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.

The booster targets omicron variants. Vaid is waiting to see who the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will recommend the shot for. So far, his guess is it will be recommended for the elderly and immune-compromised.

Vaid said the shot may prove too expensive for McKinley Health Center now that federal pandemic aid has dried up.

“With the end of the emergency, there are no federal vaccines being provided at no cost. So now it will be something that we will have to look at based on the cost,” Vaid said.

All students are required to have health insurance, and Vaid said the vaccine will likely be covered at off campus clinics and pharmacies.

McKinley is supported by students’ health service fees and provides primary care visits, mental health counseling and more to students at no additional cost.

Vaid said he does expect to offer flu vaccines by mid-September. The flu vaccine can be taken at the same time as COVID vaccines or boosters.

Emily Hays is a reporter for Illinois Public Media.

Picture of Emily Hays

Emily Hays

Emily Hays started at WILL in October 2021 after three-plus years in local newsrooms in Virginia and Connecticut. She has won state awards for her housing coverage at Charlottesville Tomorrow and her education reporting at the New Haven Independent. Emily graduated from Yale University where she majored in History and South Asian Studies.

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