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CHAMPAIGN — Ashlee Walters has a new task on her mind before beginning her journey toward a master’s degree at the University of Illinois: getting her COVID-19 booster shot.

Walters works two jobs in town, so finding the right window to go get her third vaccine shot has been tough. But she said she’s now looking for an appointment before her studies in the UI’s library-science program ramp up.

“I’m trying to figure out when to get it sooner, since I have to be in a building next Friday for orientation,” Walters said. “I want to be prepared.”

On Thursday, the UI system announced its newest step to respond to the pandemic — requiring boosters for all vaccinated students and employees as soon as they’re eligible.

Ninety-four percent of students, staff and faculty on the Urbana campus have been fully vaccinated, but the UI has not yet shared any statistics on how many of them have received a booster shot.

A handful of other Big Ten universities have announced the same requirement. The UI gave no deadline, just a “strong encouragement” to get one before the semester starts.

“We plan to provide time for everyone to receive their booster when they are eligible to meet this new requirement, and we will provide more information to you after the Spring 2022 semester begins,” Chancellor Robert Jones said in a Thursday massmail.

The University of Michigan and Michigan State first announced their booster requirements Dec. 17. Eligible students and employees at Michigan have until Feb. 4 to get their next shot.

Northwestern University students and employees have until Jan. 30 to receive their next shot.

Rutgers University, the newest member of the Big Ten, gave those eligible on its campus until Jan. 31 to get a booster. It will be holding class remotely until Jan. 30, and students residing on campus were “strongly encouraged” to upload their booster status by Jan. 15.

In all cases, universities are responding to the growing wave of cases of the omicron variant, which has exploded across the U.S. during the holiday season.

“With the emergence of the omicron variant and holiday travel, increasing positive COVID-19 cases present real risks, and the requirement of a booster shot adds to our multi-layered approach to maximizing everyone’s safety,” Jones said in the massmail.

According to UI epidemiologist Rebecca Smith, an associate professor who serves on the school’s SHIELD team, booster shots may not just protect against omicron, but also against future variants of the virus.

“What people have found looking into boosters is they not only increase immune response, they broaden it,” Smith explained. “Each time you get an additional vaccine, your body not only makes antibodies, it makes more diverse antibodies.”

Antibodies decline over time, which is partly why there’s been a marked increase in “breakthrough” infections for vaccinated individuals during the omicron surge, Smith said. She said the booster can restore the protection that previous doses provided against the delta variant.

The omicron variant was first detected on the Urbana campus in mid- to late December, right around the end of the fall semester.

“It became the dominant strain within a week,” Smith said.

In the last seven days of testing data on campus, 977 students, faculty and staff have tested positive for COVID-19.

The last time the UI recorded around 1,000 cases in a week was early in September 2020, before any vaccines were available and among a sample of nearly three times as many tests.

“This indicates transmission is high in our community and it is widespread,” Smith said. “We are seeing large numbers of cases in grad students and faculty and staff who live and interact with the community quite a bit more than the undergrad population.”

Walters is in favor of the measure, though she thinks the timing of the announcement “leaves something to be desired” for students like her.

“Right now and next week, all students are thinking of is ‘I have to get back to campus,’” Walters said. “Now they have to think about a time to get the shot and may have to schedule time off in case they’re feeling side effects.”

Though the booster is safe and highly effective at preventing against infection and severe disease, it’s not the only weapon in the county’s “vaccine-plus” approach to COVID-19 mitigation, Smith said. Masks, distancing and ventilation are still important.

“The more time we give the virus to spread, the more time it has to adapt,” Smith said. “We’re in an arms race.”

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