EAU CLAIRE — An annual ritual returned to the UW-Eau Claire campus over the past three days, but with a few tweaks to promote safety amid the lingering COVID-19 pandemic.
With coronavirus cases lower than a year ago and some students vaccinated, life at UW-Eau Claire should be a bit closer to normal in 2021-22, said Quincy Chapman, director of housing and residence life.
Yet with delta variant cases spiking and local health officials warning of rapidly rising hospitalizations, safety precautions still will be evident on campus and in residence halls.
That was visible Saturday through Monday as nearly 3,800 masked students moved into the university’s residence halls eager for the start of a new academic year.
“It’s looking similar but a little bit less rigid this year as far as our student expectations,” Chapman said, noting that masks are still required in all common areas of dormitories.
The only exceptions are when students are in their rooms, brushing their teeth or in the shower.
A pair of students moving in Monday said they were not overly concerned about the COVID-19 policies.
Freshman Jonathan Binder of Omro attended UW-Eau Claire last fall but then took spring semester off in part because of the pandemic.
“I’m excited to be back because I hear things will be more normal this year,” Binder said as he filled a large yellow bin with his belongings before rolling it toward his temporary home in Sutherland Hall on upper campus.
Binder, who is vaccinated, said he isn’t too worried about the virus on campus because he previously worked with COVID-19 patients in a health care job and knows how to protect himself. A bigger concern, he said, is that another surge in cases could lead the university to shut down in-person classes and events again.
Emma Hindes, a senior from La Crosse, transferred to UW-Eau Claire from Bemidji State University in Minnesota last spring but attended classes remotely.
“I’m super excited that we to have all of our events and classes in person this year,” said Hindes, who was being assisted with her move to Sutherland Hall by her little sister.
The university’s COVID-19 dashboard indicates that as of Monday 51.8% of students had uploaded a vaccination record.
Chapman said the Housing Office has only received calls from two families concerned about the vaccination status of a roommate.
“We just work one-on-one with someone who has a concern to find a space where they have a level of comfort,” he said.
Vaccinated students have done “the best and safest thing they could do,” while the university is requiring unvaccinated students to get tested weekly for at least the first month of the semester, Chapman said.
Like last year, UW-Eau Claire has reserved Putnam Hall as a place to isolate students who test positive for the virus and Katharine Thomas Hall to quarantine students who have been in close contact with someone with COVID-19. As of Monday, four students were staying in each of the lower campus dorms, compared with capacities of 175 for Putnam and 90 for Katharine Thomas.
Chapman said he is pleased to see such a small number of students needing to be in the isolation and quarantine dorms, adding, “We’d rather pay for utilities that nobody is using.”
In 2020-21, occupancy in those buildings peaked with 77 in isolation just after Thanksgiving break and 90 in quarantine in late September.
“Students did a really good job of staying safe in the spring,” Chapman said, noting that the university never had more than 10 students at a time in isolation during spring semester.
The residence halls being used for traditional housing are about 200 students shy of capacity.
The rest of the week is filled with orientation and social activities for students. Classes begin Thursday.
KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — A Taliban guard at Kabul’s airport says the last U.S. planes have flown out and celebratory gunfire erupted across the Afghan capital marking the symbolic end of 20 years of war. In Washington, the U.S. confirmed the withdrawal of its last troops, which faced a self-imposed Tuesday deadline.
Hemad Sherzad, a Taliban fighter stationed at the airport, said early Tuesday the last five U.S. planes departed around midnight. That would mark the end of a massive airlift that has allowed more than 116,000 people to leave since the Taliban swept back into power two weeks ago.
In announcing the completion of the evacuation and war effort. Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, said the last planes took off from Kabul airport at 3:29 p.m. EDT, or one minute before midnight in Kabul.
Earlier Monday, Islamic State militants fired a volley of rockets at Kabul’s rapidly emptying international airport without hurting anyone. All day, U.S. military cargo jets came and went despite the rocket attack.
The Taliban had earlier released a video shot from the airport’s grounds, saying the Americans had removed or destroyed most of their equipment and that troop numbers were far lower. “It looks like today will be the last day,” one of the unidentified fighters said.
With the departure of the last of its troops, the U.S. ends its 20-year war with the Taliban back in power. Many Afghans remain fearful of them or further instability, and there have been sporadic reports of killings and other abuses in areas under Taliban control despite pledges to restore peace and security.
In the last 24 hours, the American military evacuated about 1,200 people on 26 C-17 flights, while two coalition flights flew out 50 others, the White House said.
The two-week airlift has brought scenes of desperation and horror. In the early days, people desperate to flee Taliban rule flooded onto the tarmac and some fell to their deaths after clinging to a departing aircraft. On Thursday, an Islamic State suicide attack at an airport gate killed at least 169 Afghans and 13 U.S. service members.
The extremist group is far more radical than the Taliban, who captured most of Afghanistan in a matter of days. The two groups have fought each other before, and the Taliban have pledged to not harbor terrorist groups.
The Taliban tightened their security cordon around the airport after the attack, clearing away massive crowds of Afghans who were desperate to flee the country in the waning days of the U.S.-led airlift.
Taliban fighters are now stationed along a fence near the main runway.
A crowd quickly gathered Monday around the remains of a four-door sedan used in the rocket attack. The car had what appeared to be six homemade rocket tubes mounted in place of its back seats.
“I was inside the house with my children and other family members. Suddenly there were some blasts,” said Jaiuddin Khan, who lives nearby. “We jumped into the house compound and lay on the ground.”
Some of the rockets landed across town, striking residential apartment blocks, witnesses said. That neighborhood is under 2 miles from the airport. No injuries were reported.
Five rockets targeted the airport, said Navy Capt. Bill Urban, a U.S. military spokesman. A defensive weapon known as a C-RAM — a Counter-Rocket, Artillery and Mortar System — targeted the rockets in a whirling hail of ammunition, he said. The system has a distinct, drill-like sound that echoed through the city at the time of the attack.
An IS statement, carried by the group’s Amaq media outlet, claimed the militants fired six rockets.
The White House said President Joe Biden was briefed on the rocket attack.
“The president was informed that operations continue uninterrupted at HKIA, and has reconfirmed his order that commanders redouble their efforts to prioritize doing whatever is necessary to protect our forces on the ground,” the statement said, using an acronym for Kabul’s airport.
Planes took off about every 20 minutes at one point Monday morning. One C-17 landing in the afternoon shot off flares as it approached — a maneuver to protect against heat-seeking missiles and a sign the U.S. military remains concerned about surface-to-air missiles loose in the country.
Smoke from several fires along the airport’s perimeter could be seen. It wasn’t clear what was ablaze, although U.S. forces typically destroy material and equipment they don’t take with them.
The airport had been one of the few ways out for foreigners and Afghans fleeing the Taliban. However, coalition nations have halted their evacuations in recent days, leaving the U.S. military largely alone there with some remaining allied Afghan forces.
The U.S. State Department released a statement Sunday signed by about 100 countries, as well as NATO and the European Union, saying they had received “assurances” from the Taliban that people with travel documents would still be able to leave.
The Taliban have said they will allow normal travel after the U.S. withdrawal is completed on Tuesday and they take control of the airport. However, it is unclear how the militants will run the airport and which commercial carriers will begin flying in, given the ongoing security concerns.
Qatar confirmed to The Associated Press on Monday that the Gulf country has been taking part in negotiations about operations at the airport with Afghan and international parties, mainly the U.S. and Turkey. Qatar’s Assistant Foreign Minister Lolwa al-Khater said its main priority is restoring regular operations while maintaining security at the airport. Qatar is a U.S. ally that has long hosted a Taliban political office.
The Taliban have honored a pledge not to attack Western forces so long as they evacuate by Tuesday, but IS remains a threat.
The U.S. carried out a drone strike Saturday that it said killed two IS members. American officials said a U.S. drone strike on Sunday blew up a vehicle carrying IS suicide bombers who were planning to attack the airport.
Relatives of those killed in Sunday’s strike disputed that account, saying it killed civilians who had nothing to do with the extremist group.
Najibullah Ismailzada said his brother-in-law, Zemarai Ahmadi, 38, had just arrived home from his job working with a Korean charity. As he drove into the garage, his children came out to greet him, and that’s when the missile struck.
“We lost 10 members of our family,” Ismailzada said, including six children raging in age from 2 to 8. He said another relative, Naser Nejrabi, who was a former soldier in the Afghan army and a former interpreter for the U.S. military in his mid-20s, also was killed, along with two teenagers.
U.S. officials have acknowledged the reports of civilian casualties without confirming them.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the U.S. military takes steps to avoid civilian casualties when carrying out targeted strikes. “Of course, the loss of life from anywhere is horrible, and it impacts families no matter where they’re living, in the United States or around the world,” she said.
Akhgar reported from Istanbul and Krauss from Jerusalem. Associated Press writers Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Rahim Faiez in Istanbul, Munir Ahmed in Islamabad, Samy Magdy in Cairo, Joseph Krauss in Jerusalem and Robert Burns and Lou Kesten in Washington contributed.
The Biden administration’s plan for COVID-19 vaccine booster shots starting Sept. 20, to be discussed by a federal advisory committee Monday, could help curb a surge fueled by the delta variant of the coronavirus but risks undermining confidence in the vaccines, Madison experts say.
“Given what we’re seeing with breakthrough infections, I think it’s a good idea to give a booster,” said Dr. Nasia Safdar, medical director of infection control at UW Hospital. With COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths on the rise, “anything we can do to blunt it would be helpful,” Safdar said.
Dr. James Conway, a UW Health pediatrician who specializes in infectious diseases, said the federal plan to give boosters to all adults should be narrowed to high-risk groups such as older adults, nursing home residents and health care workers. Studies suggest vaccine protection against infection is declining, but the shots still stave off most serious disease and death, a point that could get lost in a broad booster campaign, Conway said.
“I do worry that it undercuts the message that these vaccines are really great, working better than any of us hoped,” he said.
“In a healthy person, getting a booster too early could actually give you more side effects.”
The Biden plan, announced Aug. 18, calls for an extra dose for people 18 and older eight months after they got their second injection of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines. A strategy for the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, for which the company last week said data also supports a booster, is to come.
In calling for boosters, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cited three studies and data from Israel finding weakening protection against infection but sustained effectiveness against hospitalizations. Experts say the shift may stem from waning antibodies from the vaccine, the predominance of the more contagious delta variant or a reduction in mask-wearing and physical distancing.
“We are concerned that this pattern of decline we are seeing will continue in the months ahead, which could lead to reduced protection against severe disease, hospitalization and death,” U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said at the White House announcement.
Two other CDC studies released last week found vaccine protection against infection dropped from 91% before the delta variant emerged to 66% afterward, while hospitalizations for COVID-19 remained 29 times greater among the unvaccinated than those immunized.
Breakthrough cases of COVID-19, in people fully vaccinated, appear to be on the rise nationwide though still relatively rare. In Wisconsin in July, unvaccinated people in Wisconsin were nearly three times as likely to be infected with COVID-19, nearly four times as likely to be hospitalized for it and 11 times as likely to die from it as those fully vaccinated, according to the state Department of Health Services.
The Food and Drug Administration, which fully approved Pfizer’s vaccine last week, would still need to approve booster shots. The CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, which will discuss boosters at a meeting Monday, typically makes final vaccine recommendations.
The booster shot plan raises many questions, from whether it will detract from giving initial shots to other people, including in the developing world, to whether there’s enough evidence that they’re needed now.
“Our number one priority in the country must be to get unvaccinated people vaccinated,” said Ajay Sethi, an infectious disease epidemiologist at UW-Madison.
He said there’s no “ironclad” data to recommend boosters now but a justifiable desire to be cautious.
“Nobody has the stomach for waiting to find out that we have this surge in hospitalizations in people who are vaccinated, and deaths, to then say, ‘Oh, the vaccines are failing us,’” Sethi said. “In an emergent situation, you have to make decisions before you get the best evidence.”
The World Health Organization opposed the Biden plan and called for a two-month moratorium on boosters, saying poor counties aren’t getting enough vaccine for initial shots. The Biden administration said the U.S. has donated 115 million doses to 80 countries, more than other nations combined.
“I think it’s possible to achieve both,” Sethi said, especially if companies like Moderna, which developed its vaccine with U.S. tax dollar support, are pressured to train more people in developing countries to produce the vaccine themselves.
Some research shows vaccination has produced a strong response by T cells, a more durable form of immunity than the antibodies other studies indicate are declining, which could suggest boosters aren’t necessary. But it’s hard to measure T cells, and enough studies show antibodies are waning, Safdar said.
“It seems worthwhile to build that up,” she said. “The urgency of the moment is such that you can’t wait.”
Boosters will present logistical challenges, however, Safdar said. Annual flu shots are also given in the fall, and hospitals and clinics are already facing staffing shortages. Some people might want to get a flu shot and a COVID-19 booster at the same time, while others might want to avoid that, given that each injection can result in achiness or a low-grade fever.
“It may be advisable to separate them for that reason, but not if it comes at the cost of getting people back,” she said.
The definition of “fully vaccinated” likely will change, to require three doses of the Pfizer or Moderna shots or two for J&J, Safdar said. How will workplaces or venues requiring that status adjust? Will people now considered “fully vaccinated” remain that way until exactly eight months after their last immunization?
Another question: With the Pfizer vaccine now fully approved and the timeline unclear for full approval of the Moderna and J&J vaccines, might some people who have received Moderna or J&J injections — which have emergency authorization status — prefer a Pfizer booster?
Safdar said there’s little scientific concern with mixing the Pfizer and Moderna brands, but Conway said it shouldn’t be done without more data. “I would discourage people from going off script,” he said.
Conway said boosters are “absolutely justified” for high-risk groups, including people 65 and older, those with underlying medical conditions, health care workers and long-term care residents.
But he said the risk-benefit analysis can be different for healthy, younger people, in part because of rare side effects such as heart inflammation cases reported in some recipients of the Moderna and Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines, mostly in male adolescents and young adults. People should wait the recommended eight months before getting boosters and not seek them earlier, he said.
“I would be concerned about giving healthy people a third dose too early and triggering more of an immune response than they really need,” he said.
By “super-vaccinating” much of the population, boosters could help slow the delta surge and better protect people against other variants that might arise, Conway said. But the primary goal should remain vaccinating those who haven’t had any shots.
“Whether it’s here in the United States or globally, that’s where you’re going to really bend the curve and get rid of this disease,” he said.