MSU, UM, WSU require boosters for students, staff after omicron cases found

Students, faculty and staff at Michigan State University, the University of Michigan and Wayne State University will be required to receive a COVID-19 booster before the start of the next semester, the schools announced Friday.

All three schools cited the omicron variant as a factor in the decision to require boosters.

A person associated with the UM campus was identified Friday as having contracted the omicron variant, said Susan Ringler-Cerniglia, spokeswoman for the Washtenaw County Health Department. Details on the patient's vaccination status, travel history and association with the university were not available Friday afternoon.  

"This person tested positive last week and they've been isolating at home," Ringler-Cerniglia said. "We got the results yesterday from the genomic sequencing indicating it was the omicron variant."

MSU also confirmed Friday that through its on-campus testing and sequencing labs that the university had an omicron case "connected to its campus community." That test has been sent to the state for official confirmation, MSU spokesman Dan Olsen said.

Wayne State didn't indicate it had an omicron variant case. But the university's chief health and wellness officer, Laurie Lauzon Clabo, said the Detroit-based university may require resorting to remote learning "for a limited time" at the start of winter semester. A decision and announcement will be made by Dec. 23, she wrote. 

The state has confirmed six omicron variant cases so far, including one each in Washtenaw, Oakland and Wayne counties. Three prior cases have also been confirmed, two in Genesee County and one in Kent County. There are nearly 24,000 confirmed cases of the delta variant, the state's current dominant variant, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services. 

Experts have said the variant is likely spreading faster than it can be confirmed through testing. Omicron is believed to be more transmissible than the delta variant, which is currently the dominant variant across the country. Several colleges, including Cornell University in New York and Princeton University in New Jersey, have confirmed outbreaks.

Michigan State became the first university in Michigan on Friday morning to explicitly require, rather than just recommend, a booster shot in addition to the initial vaccination regimen. UM followed suit a few hours later.

"All members of our campus community who were fully vaccinated either with a two-dose regimen more than six months ago or a one-dose regimen more than two months ago are now eligible for a booster and should immediately receive one," read MSU President Samuel Stanley's email to the campus community. "Those individuals who are still within the six- or two-month windows (depending on vaccine type) should make plans to receive a booster as soon as they are eligible."

Booster shots are recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to help strengthen protection against COVID-19. They are recommended to everyone 18 years and older who are six months out from completing the Moderna or Pfizer shot regimens or two months out from getting a Johnson & Johnson shot. They are also available to those 16 and older.

That was a factor in Stanley's decision to require booster shots, he wrote in his email.

Michigan State University is expanding its vaccine mandate and will require all students, faculty and staff to receive a COVID-19 booster starting in the spring semester, President Samuel L. Stanley, right, said in an email to the campus community on Friday.

Students at UM have until Feb. 4 to get a booster if they are already eligible or "as soon as they are eligible thereafter." MSU has not yet set a specific deadline but will be sharing more information soon, Olsen said. MSU's next semester begins Jan. 10. Both schools will be updating the forms that allow students and employees to report their vaccine statuses.

Deb Bitner, president of the Clerical Technical Union at MSU, said her group doesn't oppose the booster "if it keeps MSU employees working."

"We would like to keep the university open," Bitner said. "We understand about the safety for all involved, so we're fine with this program and we're looking forward to making sure it's fairly and consistently applied to all of our members."

Brendan Cantwell, an associate professor in MSU's department of educational administration, said he was glad to see the booster mandate. He called it a "logical extension" to the mandate already in place, especially as data indicates both schools are likely to have to deal with the omicron variant in the coming semester.

The added level of protection from boosters, he said, could make a significant difference in keeping people safe.

"It's a proactive step to mitigate what is likely to be a challenge, and it's the right thing to do," Cantwell said. "I'm glad both university presidents took that step. ... It would be nice if all Michigan university presidents did it all at once, honestly."

Wayne State University's Campus Health Committee announced Friday evening its booster requirement for students, faculty and staff for the winter 2022 semester. The booster requirement will apply to everyone except those with approved exemptions and students who will learn entirely remotely "with no need to be on campus or access campus resources," Lauzon Clabo wrote in the posting.

Wayne State students, professors and staff must upload proof of their booster starting on Jan. 3 at the time they are eligible for the additional shot, which is six months past the second dose for Pfizer or Moderna vaccines or two months past the single dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, Lauzon Clabo said.

UM's Ann Arbor campus will continue with in-person activities through the final days of the fall 2021 term, including hosting an in-person commencement on Sunday. In-person classes for the winter term are scheduled to resume on Jan. 5.

"The existing mitigation strategies have allowed our campuses to have a successful in-person fall experience, which has benefited our entire community in so many ways despite the ongoing pandemic," said Robert Ernst, UM associate vice president for student life and director of the Campus Health Response Committee.

Early studies have shown that receiving three vaccine doses — a two-shot initial regimen and then a booster shot — offers better protection against omicron. Studies are limited at this point and typically have not been peer-reviewed, but boosters have shown promise so far.

Pfizer's own research has shown boosters help protect against the newest variant, omicron, and that even two doses helps limit severe disease. A study from Israel showed that a booster dose added extra protection, while one from researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard and MIT have shown that a booster dose improves protection.

Most Americans should be given the Pfizer or Moderna shots instead of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine that can cause rare but serious blood clots, U.S. health officials announced Thursday.

Michigan's first case of the omicron variant was detected last week in a fully vaccinated Kent County resident. The variant was first reported in the United States on Dec. 1.

The west Michigan patient tested positive for COVID-19 on Dec. 3, and genomic sequencing confirmed it was the highly contagious omicron variant and was reported to the state, according to a Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. Vaccine records indicate the Kent County adult was fully vaccinated but had not received a booster dose, according to the state health department.

"We are concerned, although not surprised, about the discovery of the omicron variant in Michigan," Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Elizabeth Hertel said in a statement last week.

An Oakland County resident tested positive for COVID-19 on Dec. 5 and a lab identified the strain as the omicron variant on Dec. 16 and then notified the state Department of Health and Human Services.

A case investigation determined the resident, who was vaccinated but did not have a booster dose, had traveled internationally. The resident denied having any close contacts since returning home. 

“The bad news is that omicron is here. The good news is our main tools still work as with any variant — masking regardless of vaccine status, distance and vaccinations, including booster doses,” Oakland County Health Division Medical Director Dr. Russell Faust said. “Even if omicron is slightly resistant to immunity to other variants, increasing your immunity through vaccinations will help prevent infection, hospitalization and death.”

Scientists around the world are racing to understand omicron, which has a large number of worrisome mutations in important regions of its genetic structure that could affect how well it spreads from person to person. How quickly the number of cases doubles, known as “doubling time,” can give a preview of what the disease burden could be in a few weeks.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said Wednesday that early data suggests omicron is more transmissible than delta, with a doubling time of about two days.

In Britain, where omicron cases are doubling every two to three days, the variant is expected to soon replace delta as the dominant strain in the country.

The CDC says more data are needed to know if omicron infections cause more severe illness or death than other variants, especially when it comes to breakthrough cases in people who have already been vaccinated. 

“Emergence of omicron in our area further emphasizes the importance of primary vaccinations and boosters, especially before any upcoming holiday gatherings,” Oakland County Director of Health and Human Services Leigh-Anne Stafford said. “Vaccination, masking and social distancing is strongly encouraged to help slow spread of Omicron and all COVID-19 viruses.”

Associated Press contributed.