NU students line up for COVID tests on Monday, Jan. 3. (Jeff Hirsh photo)

An infectious disease expert at Northwestern University told students on Tuesday that “we’re in a better position on campus than most places around the world.”

Dr. Richard D’Aquila, of NU’s Feinberg School of Medicine, was among several university admistrators on a webinar for students, explaining a variety of COVID-related topics.

While cases are on the rise at Northwestern, as they are nationwide, D’Aquila said mitigation measures at NU, along with the high vaccination rate among students, faculty, and staff let him say he’d rather be on campus here than anywhere else when it came to COVID safety.

The most recent reports show NU’s latest positivity rate at 5.54% for the week of Dec. 3 to Jan. 6. The statewide rolling seven-day average is about triple that rate.

Northwestern is currently on the second week of remote learning due to COVID, but in-person classes and activities are scheduled to resume on Tuesday.

University vice-president Luke Figora said Northwestern has already distributed more than a half million at-home COVID tests since the pandemic began, including 60,000 last month as students and staff went on winter break.

Figora said 98.5% of students were vaccinated as of the fall term. COVID vaccination was a requirement in order to sign up for classes. Booster shots are now being required as well, either by the end of this month, or 30 days after becoming eligible, whichever comes first.

So far, Figora said, about 10,000 students have provided proof of boosters, slightly less than half of the university’s undergraduate and graduate school enrollment.

D’Aquila said he is “cautiously optimistic” that the omicron variant of COVID will start to recede relatively soon.

He said that Northwestern Memorial Hospital was ready on Friday to institute emergency measures, such as calling in staff on their off days, due to the number of COVID patients. However, that was put on hold as cases started to diminish slightly.

The infectious disease expert noted that South Africa, where the latest variant was first discovered, saw an “icepick epidemic curve,” with omicron cases going up very rapidly and coming down quickly as well.

Of course, he also noted that omicron itself “came out of left field” unexpectedly, and there may be other variants in the future.

While most omicron cases have been mild to moderate for those who are vaccinated, the ongoing nearly two-year-long pandemic has taken its toll emotionally on just about everyone.

Julie Payne-Kirchmeir, NU’s vice-president for student affairs, said, “For some of our students, it’s been a difficult road for their well-being.”

She said that a variety of counseling services are available, including same-day virtual appointments.

So there is hope, and there is help. But there’s also the chance that things could take another turn for the worse.

As Figora noted, “the world has changed.”

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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