Spring Break Travel Led to Nearly 160 COVID-19 Cases in a University of Chicago Outbreak

Health Information Relationships

Experts have repeatedly warned that travel comes with COVID-19 risks for you and those around you—especially if you’re unvaccinated. Now a new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) tracks how spring break travel in 2021 fueled a COVID-19 outbreak at the University of Chicago.

In the study, published in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, the Chicago Department of Public Health investigated an outbreak of 158 undergraduate students at the University of Chicago who were diagnosed with COVID-19 between March 15 and May 3, 2021. Of the 140 students who tested positive and participated in the interviews, 89 of them (63%) reported traveling outside of the city for spring break. They reported traveling to seven different countries and 23 states in the U.S., and the most frequent reason they gave for travel was vacation. Additionally, 57 of the students (41%) said they’d taken part in social gatherings indoors. 

Out of the 158 students who tested positive, most (72%) lived on campus. The outbreak occurred despite the university’s safety protocols for students living in the dorms, which included weekly COVID-19 testing, reduced occupancy, remote classes for the week after spring break, and separate housing for students who tested positive. But at the time of the outbreak, most undergraduate students weren’t eligible for COVID-19 vaccines in Chicago. In this group of 158 students, only three were fully vaccinated, the CDC report says.

Another concerning aspect of this study was that, among the testing samples that had genetic sequencing data, investigators found nine different strains of the coronavirus. And the most common variant, detected in 64% of the samples, was B.1.1.222. This particular variant wasn’t common in Chicago prior to this outbreak and was most closely related to specimens seen in California, the CDC study explains. Another 21% of the samples in this outbreak were identified as the alpha variant, which was dominant in the U.S. before the highly transmissible delta variant took over.

These findings support the recent warnings from the CDC about avoiding unnecessary travel while the pandemic continues—especially if you aren’t fully vaccinated. In fact, the CDC warned against travel over spring break this year and just cautioned people about traveling over Labor Day weekend. The CDC said that even those who have been vaccinated need to weigh the risks of travel and gathering with people outside their household carefully. 

Travel during the pandemic puts you and the people in your life at risk of developing a COVID-19 infection. And, as this outbreak shows, it also puts you at risk for contracting and potentially spreading a strain of the coronavirus that may not be common where you live. So when you’re considering whether or not to take a trip out of town, be sure to account for the risks you may encounter at your destination, whether or not your reason for travel is really essential, and the possible consequences of spreading the virus at your destination or when you return home. 

Traveling responsibly by getting vaccinated, abiding by local testing and mask guidelines, and reducing your COVID-19 risks throughout your trip is one way we can help contain the effects of the pandemic.


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