A student leaves Gibbs-Green Plaza at Jackson State University, in Jackson, Miss., Thursday, April 20, 2017. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

With the fall semester weeks away, the Mississippi Department of Health has released updated guidelines for mitigating the spread of the coronavirus in colleges and universities. This comes as the delta variant “sweeps over Mississippi like a tsunami,” State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs said in a press conference on Thursday.

“We’ve seen a phenomenal increase in the number of daily reported cases of COVID,” Dobbs said, “and this is entirely attributable to the delta variant.”

As the “primary health prevention strategy” to stem transmission of the virus, the new guidelines recommend all eligible students, faculty and staff receive the COVID-19 vaccine. It also urges colleges and universities to direct everyone on campus, regardless of vaccination status, to mask-up in all indoor facilities and in crowded outdoor settings.

Students are recommended to continue social distancing in classrooms, and all students, faculty and staff should stay home if they are sick with any infectious illness.

“You can’t fill a classroom with non-immune kids without a mask on with the most contagious coronavirus you’ve ever seen circulating and expect for it not to spread,” Dobbs said. “It’s just biology.”

Colleges and universities are further advised to continue contact tracing to identify COVID-19 positive individuals and remove them from the school setting, particularly dormitories where transmission is more likely.

Lastly, the guidance also contains strategies that schools can use to manage and respond to an outbreak.

“I just want to remind everybody that we have COVID top to bottom in every single county,” said Dr. Paul Byers, the state epidemiologist. “We are seeing increases and high transmission in every single county across the state — we are going to see cases in all settings and all counties.”

Shortly after MSDH released its new guidance in a memo Wednesday afternoon, Mississippi State University and University of Mississippi announced that they would temporarily require masks in all indoor activities and locations on campus.

“We’re optimistic that this temporary mask utilization indoors will help ensure a successful start to the school year,” UM Chancellor Glenn Boyce wrote in an email to students, faculty and staff. “We will evaluate this protocol daily based on how spread of the virus evolves on campus and in our community.”

“Let me emphasize that we are implementing this temporary mitigation strategy as the least disruptive way to ensure a full campus experience,” Boyce added in bold.

At the end of the spring semester, Boyce announced that UM would be returning to “a full resumption of in-person classes” and pre-COVID-19 operations starting this fall.

MSU similarly opened up its campus over the summer, announcing June 30 that all facilities, including meeting rooms and auditoriums, could operate at 100% capacity.

The new guidance from MSDH and the surge in COVID cases led MSU to reconsider that plan, according to a press release announcing the temporary mask mandate.

“After the first few weeks of the Fall 2021 semester, it is our hope that MSU may be able to move to mask-optional policies if the number of cases on campus and in the community decreases, and vaccination rates improve substantially,” MSU wrote.

Mississippi is currently experiencing a fourth wave of COVID-19 due to the highly infectious delta variant. On Thursday, MSDH reported 3,164 new cases, close to double the number of daily cases reported a week ago.

“I really do think it’s going to be the worst wave to date,” Dobbs said.

The deluge of cases comes almost entirely from unvaccinated people, Byers said on Thursday, who tend to be in younger age groups. As of mid-July, college-aged people made up more than 60% of all new cases over the last two months in Mississippi, according to MSDH.

Byers said that while this age cohort “may not have serious complications from COVID-19,” it’s still important for them to get vaccinated because they “are serving as a source of transmission to (the) most vulnerable population,” those who are immunocompromised or older than 65.

“It’s incumbent upon all of us to make sure that not only are we vaccinated to protect ourselves, but to protect those individuals around us from infection,” Byers added.

MSDH’s guidance stops short of requiring students or faculty get vaccinated — something hundreds of professors across the state have pushed for in online petitions.

Dobbs said he doesn’t think there is consensus in Mississippi yet over whether the COVID-19 vaccine should be mandated for college and university students.

“Having everyone vaccinated and even looking at mechanisms to make that happen make sense from a transmission perspective,” Dobbs said. “I appreciate their opinion and I wish they keep sharing it. And if that’s the general consensus, instead of being hundreds (of signatures), it would’ve been thousands.”

Dobbs is also uncertain that MSDH will recommend a mandate even if the COVID-19 receives final approval from the Food and Drug Administration.

“Mandates are a curious sort of animal,” he said. “We’ll work with colleges to make those sorts of decisions. This is not really a ‘top-down, Department-of-Health, we-tell-you-what-to-do” sort of situation. These sorts of things require coalition building and consensus to some degree, and we are not really there yet.”

Molly Minta covers higher education for Mississippi Today, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter at Mississippi Today in partnership with Open Campus.