No change in sight for Kasteel Well following Omicron variant detection in Netherlands

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Photo: Aaron J. Miller

The exterior of the Kasteel Well castle

By Bailey Allen, Deputy Enterprise Editor

Weeks after a surge in COVID-19 cases forced the Netherlands into another lockdown, the appearance of Omicron—the latest mutation of the virus—threatens to throw Europe, and Emerson’s Kasteel Well study-abroad program, into turmoil.

Two days after the new variant was identified in South Africa, the Netherlands had reported 14 cases of the new variant—all tied to international travel, according to the Dutch National Institute for Public Health. Its emergence in Europe comes as Emerson students near the end of their 13-week stay at the Castle—a stay that has seen students travel across the continent on a regular basis.

“Does this have the potential to be a global spreader?” said Dr. Todd Ellerin, director of infectious diseases at South Shore Hospital. “I think the answer is yes. The concern is that omicron has a mutational pattern that is really taking some of these ‘all-star mutations’ from many of the other variants that preceded it.”

Dr. Ellerin and other epidemiologists are concerned that Omicron may prove to be much more contagious than previous strains—including the Delta variant, which now accounts for over 99 percent of cases in the U.S. The variant also has more than 30 mutations to its spike protein, which sparked concern it could evade the protection generated by vaccines.

Despite concerns, administrators at the castle have no plans to implement new precautions.

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“The impact of the new Omicron and its possible spread will have minimal to no impact on our program and its students,” wrote Kasteel Well Executive Director Dulcia Meijers in an email statement to The Beacon.

The Kasteel Well program discourages student travel for the last two weekends of the semester, in order to encourage students to prepare for final exams; consequently, the weekend of Nov. 26-28 was the last chance for students to leave the castle. 

For the remainder of the Fall ’21 term, travel and movements will be limited to the absolute minimum,” Meijers wrote.

According to Meijers, commuting faculty and staff—also tested on a weekly basis—are the only ones that travel locally.

Sophomore visual media arts major Drew Mitchell said he was relieved that students are required to stay in the castle as a result of the encroaching variant. 

“It is reassuring to know that we’re not going to be traveling anywhere,” Mitchell said. “We’re all kind of in our little bubble. Especially because finals are coming up, things are dwindling down. We’re pretty much staying here [at the Castle].”

Mitchell traveled to London last weekend, just before multiple countries were forced to reinstate mask requirements.

“It was a little scary because last weekend was our last travel weekend and we kept hearing information that the variant was found in different places,” Mitchell said. “[A lot of them were] places where kids had already traveled through or from—but luckily, we’ve been very cautious here.”

Lida Everhart, also a sophomore visual and media arts major, was met with a slew of new COVID-19 guidelines upon her arrival in Brussels, after the variant was first reported in Belgium on Nov. 22—two days before it was officially identified in South Africa. 

“It was definitely the most COVID-impacted trip I’ve been on thus far,” Everhart said. “We had some refunds happen because we couldn’t go to any clubs or anything. Belgium was the first European country to have the variant, so that did feel a little bit apocalyptic.”

According to Everhart, the safety of the Kasteel Well community was compromised after a number of Office of Student Affairs staff members tested positive for COVID-19.

“We were just released from quarantine because some staff members tested positive a while ago,” Everhart said. “Then, things were a little bit different. We had time slots at the dining hall, which was pretty sad and pathetic-feeling, and then our classes were on Zoom, which was also a huge bummer.”

“We had to be on Zoom [classes] for the past two days until everyone collectively tested negative,” Mitchell said. “It’s been a little crazy, but hopefully we’re all good.”

Even though the Omicron variant has been in the Netherlands for at least a few days, Mitchell said he was more nervous about going home to the United States.

“I just heard the very first case is out in California,” he said. “Being here, I feel a lot safer because we’re in such a closed environment. There aren’t many interactions with the outside world. We’re getting tested weekly, wearing our masks, and following a lot of precautions.”

Everhart shared similar sentiments, noting the high volume of coronavirus cases in her home state of Colorado last year.

“I’m really quite nervous to go back to my state, just because last winter, something like one in every 50 people had COVID, and the cases just keep rising there,” Everhart said.

While Everhart feels safer in the Netherlands than she would back at home, she continues to worry about the Omicron variant.

“I’m a little bit more paranoid about every ebb and flow of my body,” she said. “Like, ‘Oh my gosh, is this COVID?’ just because I know there’s a slightly higher probability. But I still feel safer than if I was in the United States, honestly.”

Dr. Ellerin said the best way to protect against the new variant was increasing vaccine distribution, and shifting the parameters for being fully vaccinated to include a booster shot. 

“We need to vaccinate more,” he said. “We need to boost more. People aren’t fully vaccinated for more than six months from [their] last dose. Now you’re really only partially vaccinated. You need that booster… we’re going to have to do that and then develop next-generation vaccines as rapidly as possible. That’s important. That’s the take [away].”

Camilo Fonseca contributed reporting.