Our Approach for January 2022

January 5, 2022

Dear Members of the Georgetown University Community:

I wish to begin this new year with my sincere hope that you had a blessed holiday season.

As I shared with you in my letter of December 29, 2021, we will begin this Spring semester with virtual learning. We intend to resume in-person learning on Monday, January 31. A decision to move to virtual learning is only made with the most careful consideration. Throughout these past twenty-two months, and again, in this most recent decision, we have placed health and safety as our highest priority in our response to the pandemic.

We are in the “fifth surge” of the pandemic and this—the Omicron surge—may be the most complex moment in which to operate. What makes it so challenging is the staggering rate of transmission, the high numbers of hospitalizations, and the current projection that the surge will not peak until mid-January.

We have strengthened our layered public health program at important moments throughout the pandemic. The most significant layer of the program is our commitment to vaccination. A second layer is testing—regular, surveillance testing of members of our community has enabled us to mitigate the transmission of the virus by identifying asymptomatic individuals who have been unknowingly spreading the virus. Other important layers include mask wearing, physical distancing, reduced density of crowds, and isolation of those who test positive.

As strong as our layered public health program is, the Omicron variant has posed further challenges, which led us to take the steps I announced last week. In this letter, I wish to share with you the key elements that informed our decision and what we will be paying attention to in the coming days as we begin the spring semester.

There are five drivers of our recent decision—the rate of transmission; the efficacy of the vaccines; the virulence of Omicron; the levels of hospitalizations; and the current projection for the duration of this surge.

[1] Rate of transmission captures the speed at which the virus is spreading. As we are now well aware, Omicron is setting records for speed of transmission, all over the world. No variant has spread faster.

[2] Vaccine Efficacy captures the strength of the effectiveness of the vaccine against this virus. Vaccination remains the most important step we can take to protect ourselves from the virus. Although Omicron seems to evade some immune protection, full vaccination and a booster shot—a requirement for each member of our community—still helps to mitigate the worst impacts of the disease.

[3] Virulence captures the ability of the virus to cause severe disease to an individual. The good news emerging from South Africa this past week is that the Omicron variant appears to cause a milder disease than the Delta variant. This means that many people are not getting as sick when infected with this variant; however, with the range of symptoms being reported, it is misleading to assert that COVID is now no worse than a cold or flu. This seriousness of the illness can be captured in the key metrics regarding hospitalizations, below.

[4] Hospitalizations – Hospitalization rates vary significantly across our country. Current rates are exceptionally high in the mid-Atlantic. Since 2000, Georgetown has partnered with MedStar Health—the largest health care system in the mid-Atlantic region—in our mission in academic medicine. During this past week, MedStar and our region have experienced the highest rate of hospitalization since the beginning of the pandemic. This past week there were 695 COVID-positive patients in hospital beds across MedStar. The previous high was 654 COVID-positive patients in May 2020. To place these numbers in perspective, on November 1, 2021, there were 88 COVID positive patients across MedStar; on December 2—163; and, on December 30—695.

However, the acuity—the severity of illness—of these patients is not as high as in earlier surges. In Spring 2020, one in three hospital admissions of COVID patients to MedStar hospitals required care in Intensive Care Units (ICUs). Today, one in six patients hospitalized is in an ICU. Mortality also appears to be lower.

[5] Projections – The best estimates, based on what has unfolded in South Africa and the United Kingdom, suggest a peak in transmission in the United States in mid-January. Given the strains on our health care systems, and the current level of transmission, ever increasing cases of Omicron will cause more distress and will test the limits of our capacities. These same projections lead us to believe there will be a decline in new cases in the last two weeks of January, which provide the basis for why we intend to resume in-person learning on January 31.

Throughout the pandemic, I have provided weekly video presentations sharing our current thinking in responding to the pandemic. In the coming days, I will share in more detail the key elements outlined in this letter.

We are a community of 26,000 students, faculty, and staff across our campuses here in Washington, D.C. Our region—the DMV—is experiencing the highest rates of transmission and hospitalization since the beginning of the pandemic. The steps we are taking in January—to reduce the number of encounters in our classrooms, dining halls, recreation facilities and offices—are intended to respond to this fifth surge and position us to resume in-person learning on January 31.

We have to be prepared for disruptions—the impact of Omicron on health care workers means less capacity throughout our health care system; for staff and faculty—access to child care will be critical; we may confront difficulty maintaining staffing for essential operations; and we will need to maintain flexibility as we face the challenges associated with this fifth wave. This moment asks all of us, to once again, summon our collective strength and support for one another as we respond to this pandemic.

With my profound gratitude.


John J. DeGioia