CHAMPAIGN-URBANA, Ill. (WCIA) — Masks are back on the University of Illinois campus as students begin their second week of class. A memo university Chancellor Robert Jones sent to students, faculty and staff Sunday night strongly recommended the use of a ‘high-quality face covering’ in the classroom ‘through the next several weeks.’

“For the next three to four weeks, it’s very important that everybody has their guard up,” McKinley Health Center Director Awais Vaid said Monday.

The 7-day positivity rate at the university neared 15% Monday, and almost 20% of tests taken by undergraduate students came back positive. Vaid said it’s similar to the rate the school saw as students returned in 2020 and 2021.

“This week and the next week could be critical for us. That’s why there was the strongly worded reminder from the chancellor that masks are still very good options,” Vaid continued.

University leaders expect cases to peak in that time, the memo read.

“In terms of hospitalizations, in terms of deaths, in terms of ICU admissions, in terms of the health care system getting overwhelmed, it’s not doing that,” Vaid said, differentiating this spike from those in years past. “But that does not mean people are not getting infected.”

“While it’s like, ‘Oh we still have to wear masks and this thing is still happening,’ It’s definitely still good. You never want to be like oblivious to what’s happening around here, right?” U of I sophomore Elijah Esho said in support of the university’s strong recommendation.

The data that shows the positivity rate is up is also a bit skewed, Vaid said, because testing isn’t as widely available as it was in the last couple of years.

“So we are getting only a small snapshot of what’s happening,” he added.

“Additionally, as you know, contact tracing has been completely discarded at the state level, very minimal happening at the local level as well.”

Even with limited data, the director and epidemiologist by trade said, “It seems like we’re going in a direction that we could see a significant volume of cases this week.”

It’s all a part of the move into the endemic phase of coronavirus response, according to Vaid, where we’re learning to live with the virus, rather than it disrupting society.

The decision to strongly recommend masks comes from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and state guidelines for communities dealing with high transmission rates. The campus community and Champaign County were both considered areas of high transmission Monday.

“The chancellor has the discretion of mandating it but, you know, we have always tried to be very consistent with federal state and local guidelines,” Vaid added.

The sea of students on campus Monday whose college experiences have been mostly masked had varying responses to the recommendation. Less than a third were wearing them on the crowded trek in-between classes, but more said they are or would wear them in the classroom.

“I think masks are quite symbolic in that they represent this pandemic,” sophomore Sean Liu said. “And the fact that we’re slowly getting rid of it, you know, kind of represents putting all of this behind.”

“I feel more comfortable just wearing masks,” a senior who didn’t wish to be identified by name said simply.

“I enjoyed seeing people and it made you appreciate more once we were able to take off masks, and get together with people again,” freshman Tommy Miller said, adding he won’t be wearing a mask to class. He cited antibodies from a recent COVID-19 infection.

“I think overall it lets me know that the school wants safety,” Esho concluded.

Saliva-based testing is still available for students at the Illini Union. Thus far cases have been predominantly asymptomatic, Vaid said.

The Champaign-Urbana Public Health District is also strongly recommending everyone wear a mask in indoor public spaces. The news came today after administrator Julie Pryde said community and campus cases together increased about 50% in the last week.

ANNOUNCEMENT FROM CUPHD:

The Champaign-Urbana Public Health District (CUPHD) announces that COVID-19 community-level transmission in Champaign County is high and strongly recommends that everyone wear a mask when indoors in public spaces. The level of transmission is based on three indicators which includes new case rate per 100,000 population, percent of staffed inpatient beds occupied by COVID-19 patients and new COVID-19 admissions per 100,000 population.

According to Julie Pryde, CUPHD Administrator, “The number of cases in the community and on-campus have increased about 50% in the last one week. Based on trends from previous years, we are likely to experience higher spread in the next 10 days. Indoor masking and staying at home when sick with symptoms will help reduce this spread.”