Skip to main content

Stanford Campus Conversation details return to campus, state of the pandemic in light of omicron

During Thursday’s Campus Conversation, Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne and Provost Persis Drell provided updates on campus planning, while Lloyd Minor, dean of the School of Medicine, and Kristan Staudenmayer, associate professor of surgery, discussed the current state of the pandemic.

While the omicron variant has presented concerns and logistical challenges for returning to campus, there’s hope on the horizon, President Marc Tessier-Lavigne told members of the Stanford community on Thursday.

President Marc Tessier-Lavigne, Provost Persis Drell (top left to right) provided campus-planning updates while School of Medicine Dean Lloyd Minor and Associate Professor of Surgery Kristan Staudenmayer (bottom right to left) discussed the omicron variant surge during a Campus Conversation on Thursday. (Image credit: Andrew Brodhead)

Early data indicate omicron cases may be peaking in the area. Also, while cases have increased recently at Stanford, the community’s strong adherence to public health measures is likely preventing the high rate of infections and risk of severe illness seen elsewhere.

In the first Campus Conversation of 2022, Tessier-Lavigne joined Provost Persis Drell to provide campus-planning updates and answer questions from the university community. Lloyd Minor, dean of the School of Medicine, and Kristan Staudenmayer, associate professor of surgery, also detailed the current state of the pandemic and models for COVID’s trajectory in the region.

To accommodate omicron updates, a discussion of the IDEAL initiative previously scheduled for this session was rescheduled for later in the winter quarter.

Omicron’s impact

The omicron variant lived up to expectations as being highly transmissible but has been generally less severe than previous variants, particularly for those vaccinated and boosted, Minor said.

Vaccination remains the best protection tool, in addition to masking and distancing, and Minor strongly encouraged those who haven’t yet received a booster shot to get one.

Across the nation, case numbers remain high but there are some indications that the peak may have been reached in the region. Staudenmayer shared data on wastewater tested in the Palo Alto and Stanford watersheds, which both appear to have experienced omicron peaks in early January. She cautioned these data are still early but could be a good sign for the area.

There is also substantial variability on where each state is in its surge, which is why health officials have not said that COVID has peaked nationally, Staudenmayer said. Notably, hospitalization rates often lag cases by about two weeks so many areas are still struggling with high hospitalization levels.

At Stanford, there was an increase in the seven-day positivity rate for faculty, staff, students and postdoctoral scholars in early January – though at a significantly lower rate than what’s seen at the county and state levels. Rates are currently at 1.7 percent for students and 2.6 for faculty, staff and postdocs, while county and state levels have been around 16 to 20 percent, Staudenmayer said.

“While we are certainly feeling the effects of omicron here at home, our strong adherence to all the public health measures that were just discussed is likely preventing the high number of infections that are being seen elsewhere,” Staudenmayer said.

At Stanford Medicine, more health care workers tested positive in the first two weeks of the year than during the entire pandemic prior to January, Minor said. That number is now coming down significantly among health care workers.

Stanford Health Care is seeing an increase in hospitalizations, but most patients don’t need intensive care. Of those with COVID in acute care, roughly 50 percent were admitted for an unrelated health issue and were found to also have COVID when tested upon admission.

Returning to campus

For the broader community, Stanford is now aiming for staff who have continued working from home, or reverted to doing so, to return by Feb. 14 or sooner to the work arrangements in place before the omicron surge, Tessier-Lavigne said. Managers and unit leaders will provide more guidance based on each units’ needs and situations, and employees are encouraged to discuss specific concerns with their managers.

“It’s important for us to have more of our community together in person again. It adds to the vibrancy of our campus, our engagement and connection with one another and the creativity and innovation that our community is known for,” Tessier-Lavigne said. “At the same time, I want to emphasize that we continue our broader efforts to explore flexible work options for staff in the long term.”

Many major challenges now are mainly logistical, such as providing isolation space for students who test positive, a particularly complex task for undergraduates who live in dorms. To help students in isolation keep up with their studies, Stanford began the quarter with a few weeks of remote instruction and introduced a phased start to in-person instruction.

In the last two weeks, most graduate students have returned from winter break and nearly 95 percent of undergraduates are back on campus, Drell said. The number of students in isolation as well as the number of faculty, staff and postdocs testing positive have been trending down week over week, she noted.

As of Thursday morning, she said, Stanford had 285 students isolating either in designated isolation spaces or in their regular Stanford housing, compared to approximately 600 at an earlier point this month. And while 487 faculty, staff and postdocs reported positive COVID-19 test results last week, either through Color testing or outside testing, that number is 156 so far this week, with many still working away from campus, she said.

Drell emphasized that the community needs to give each other grace now more than ever as “we’ve all grown weary of this disease and impatient with the situation and just plain cranky in general.”

Temporary limitations on student gatherings remain in effect to help prevent campus transmission. Stanford is monitoring the situation closely and will notify the community about any campus protocol changes that become necessary, Drell said.

“We’ve been living with COVID for nearly two years now, and we’ve come, to more or less, ‘know the enemy’ although it does surprise us every now and then,” she said. “…We recognize that the pandemic has affected each of us differently and we want to do all we can to help our community members navigate the many challenges that we face.”

On Wednesday, Stanford announced steps to enhance affordability for staff, faculty, grad students and postdocs, such as salary increases for regular benefits-eligible staff and faculty, stipends for staff roles requiring on-site work, enhancements to faculty housing assistance and more.

In response to a question about omicron and symptoms of post-viral COVID, also known as long COVID, Minor said there’s very early data but not enough to reach a conclusion yet. Stanford has a long COVID clinic for those patients and will gather more data over time.

The community also submitted questions asking about the current risk for children too young to be vaccinated at this time. While there have been more children hospitalized in the latest surge, Minor said nearly every case at Stanford’s hospital included children who have serious underlying medical conditions and adolescents, not those under 5.

In addressing questions on the benefits of returning to work in person, Tessier-Lavigne said that while it’s possible to get work done virtually for short periods, it’s known – “in terms of the richness of the interactions, the ability to really delve into problems in significant ways, the ability to tap into the creativity and collective wisdom of colleagues – that the in-person experience far outweighs what can be done remotely.” He later added that there is a group considering the future of work at Stanford and how to best continue hybrid work and provide valuable flexibility to employees.

University community members submitted questions on other topics not covered in the Campus Conversation. Those will be shared with university leadership to be answered in other channels.