The University extended its six-person gathering limit, confirmed the presence of the B.1.1.7. U.K. variant of the virus in the community and acknowledged rising University COVID-19 case numbers in a Return to Grounds update Friday afternoon.
“These are concerning developments, but we believe we are capable of managing them as an institution and as individual members of this community,” the update said.
The gathering limit was originally put in place Jan. 19, and University officials said that the restriction would continue through at least the first two weeks of the semester.
The University has seen an increase in the number of positive COVID-19 cases over the last several days, with 145 new cases found Monday through Wednesday. The use of on-Grounds quarantine and isolation housing has also increased since the spring semester began — as of Thursday, the University’s COVID-19 tracker reports that 22 percent of quarantine housing and 15 percent of isolation space is occupied. During the fall, quarantine housing reached a high of 30 percent occupancy Sept. 28.
The number of patients hospitalized for COVID-19 at U.Va. Health increased significantly in the last two months, forcing the hospital to require staffers to pick up extra shifts. As of Thursday, there are 38 patients hospitalized for COVID-19 at U.Va. Health, four of whom were admitted Wednesday.
“If cases continue to increase, our isolation and quarantine capacity will become strained and we will be forced to consider stricter measures,” the update said.
The update said that these stricter measures may include shifting to Short-Term Restricted Operations, which could include moving all learning online, prohibiting all in-person gatherings and restricting academic building access to graduate students, faculty and staff.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the UK variant spreads more easily and quickly than other variants of COVID-19. Though it was first identified in fall 2020, its presence was first confirmed in the United States at the end of December. The first known case of the variant in Virginia was found on Jan. 25, and as of Thursday there are five confirmed cases in the state, according to the CDC.
The University confirmed earlier today via Twitter that the U.K. variant cases are within the University community itself, but it does not plan to reveal specific numbers relating to the spread of the variant at this time.
“Due to the small number of cases involved, we are not commenting on specifics out of concern for the privacy of the individuals involved,” University spokesperson Brian Coy said.
To combat the UK variant, as well as the spread of COVID-19 throughout the University community, the update said that the University plans to continue expanding its testing program.
Students living in the Charlottesville/Albemarle area are currently required to report for prevalence testing at least once per week and are subject to disciplinary action if they fail to do so. Faculty and staff may elect to undergo asymptomatic prevalence testing.
The update also said that the University has begun retesting students living in residence halls and off-Grounds locations where they have detected a rise in cases. According to Deputy University Spokesperson Wes Hester, the University has selected multiple residential cohorts on and off Grounds for retesting this week, including Woody, Dillard, Lefevre and some complexes off of Monroe Lane.
“It is not unusual to do repeat testing when prevalence testing reveals a number of positive cases,” Hester said. “The average incubation period for the virus can range up to five or six days, so follow-up testing allows us to find cases, if any, that the original tests might have missed because of timing.”
Additionally, the update said that the University has purchased tens of thousands three-ply masks for community members, particularly those whose work or studies put them at risk of contracting COVID-19. These masks — which are available in packs of five — are available for free and can be picked up by students, faculty or staff at any saliva prevalence testing location.
The CDC currently recommends that individuals double up on cloth masks, use a mask with a pocket for an added filter or wear a higher-quality disposable mask with multiple layers.
The email urged students to continue to comply with prevalence testing, as well as other University public health guidelines such as masking and social distancing. Students are also subject to Governor Ralph Northam’s executive order, which mandates a statewide curfew from midnight to 5 a.m. and bans the sale of alcohol after 10 p.m., among other measures.
Students are urged to call Student Health if they think they are showing symptoms of COVID-19 so that they can undergo symptomatic testing as soon as possible.
This article has been updated to include additional information about the University’s protocols for releasing information on the U.K. variant's spread.