Masked and vaccinated students have not contracted COVID in the classrooms

In each suspected case, viral DNA did not match classmates

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Last fall, vaccinated and masked college students had virtually no chance of contracting COVID-19 in the classroom, according to a comprehensive study of 33,000 Boston University students supporting standard preventative measures.

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The researchers searched the college’s health records to find nine groups of students who contracted COVID at about the same time, were in class together without social distancing, and had no known contact outside of school, suggesting they may have it in the transferred classroom. However, genome analysis of coronavirus samples from the groups showed that all were more likely to be infected elsewhere.

“When we looked at the genomes and compared them, they were cousins, but no closer than that,” said John Connor, a virologist at Boston University School of Medicine, a co-author. He said the study in the journal JAMA Network Open offers an answer to a nervous question that was common last fall: “I just went to a class of 80 people. How do I know I won’t get infected from them?”

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The university was able to conduct the study because of its extensive in-house testing program, which includes DNA analysis of virus samples. The semester included 140,000 class reunions with an average size of 31 students, virtually all of whom were vaccinated as needed. The classrooms are well ventilated, the researchers said.

Masking in class was mandatory at the time the sample was taken, unlike this coming fall when many colleges have lifted the requirement. Another difference between then and now: Last fall, the Delta variant dominated, while now more contagious Omicron variants like BA.5 dominate.

Those differences are certainly important, Connor said, but the study’s finding that classroom transmission was negligible among masked and vaccinated students may nonetheless inform future decisions about outbreak response.

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