SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — After detecting more-contagious COVID-19 variants on campus over the last month, administrators at the University of Rhode Island are urging students to get vaccinated.
In an e-mail sent late Wednesday, the university wrote that it had detected cases of variant strains of the coronavirus on the Kingston campus in samples tested and sequenced at the Broad Institute, which is working in collaboration with the Rhode Island Department of Health State Health Laboratories.
The university is urging all members of the URI community, including students outside of Rhode Island as well as staff and faculty, to obtain a vaccine at the state-run South County Point of Distribution at the Schneider Electric building between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. A shuttle will run from the Memorial Union bus circle to the vaccination site continuously on both days. Parking is also available on site.
“It is essential that we have a vaccinated community to return to a near normal fall semester,” read the e-mail, which also said that students and employees should continue to participate in bi-weekly surveillance testing, regardless of their vaccination status.
The news comes as other colleges and universities are requiring students get the COVID-19 vaccine before the fall semester, including Rhode Island-based schools Brown University and Roger Williams University, and Boston University, Northeastern, and Lasell in Massachusetts.
URI has not announced a requirement, and neither have other public institutions such as the Community College of Rhode Island or Rhode Island College.
And while traditional college-aged students are among the least vaccinated groups in the state, most students at the university just became eligible in Rhode Island this week.
For Alison Blattner, a graduate student in URI’s political science department, it’s not that students on campus are hesitant about getting the vaccine, but that getting an appointment in Rhode Island has been a logistical nightmare.
“Since Rhode Island has been so slow with the rollout compared to other states, there was a while where [our age bracket] wouldn’t likely be eligible until May or June. Meanwhile, [some students] have been eligible in places like New York for weeks, or longer,” said Blattner, who said she received her first dose last Friday.
She said many out-of-state students didn’t want to go back home for the vaccine and potentially put themselves at risk during the travel or have to quarantine when they returned to URI if they were going to a high-risk state.
“It was actually going to be faster for them to wait until classes were over on the 26th and then move home and get vaccinated there,” said Blattner, who cited a previous press release that said there were no plans for vaccines to be available on campus, which she said caused many students to “just wait.”
The university said Wednesday that students who are leaving URI soon can now receive their first doses at this weekend’s clinic and receive their second dose in their home state.
Rhode Island has also continued to detect several SARS-CoV-2 variants of concern, which can be spread more rapidly and cause severe disease. But Rhode Island only sequences a portion of positive COVID-19 cases every week to screen for variants of concern and variants of interest. As of Wednesday afternoon, the state reported 197 cases of the coronavirus variant first identified in the UK. This is an increase from 72 cases of the variant reported in the beginning of April.
According to URI’s COVID-19 data tracker, the university conducted 4,155 total tests between April 14 and April 21 and identified 11 positive cases for a test positive rate of 0.46 percent. Since Jan. 1, 1,288 total positive cases have been identified through the university’s testing program, with the bulk of cases found in students living on and off campus.
However, it’s unclear how many cases of the variant have been detected at the university. “To follow appropriate protocols set by the state, the University is directing any questions about the type of variants, number of cases of variants and other specific questions to the Department of Health,” the university said in a statement when asked for comment.
Dr. Christopher Nasin, medical director at URI Health Services, said in the e-mail that while the coronavirus variants were not unexpected, it “reinforces why it is so important to protect yourself and others by continuing to wear a mask when you are in public places and around others you do not live with, washing your hands frequently, participating in bi-weekly surveillance testing, self-monitoring for symptoms, and getting vaccinated.”