By SUSAN JONES
Several colleges across the country have started to adopt vaccine mandates as the Delta variant of COVID-19 rages, but Pitt as of now will continue with its plan to require proof of vaccinations or weekly testing, which so far has yielded a vaccination rate of 83 percent for the entire University community.
But Chancellor Patrick Gallagher said at the Sept. 9 Senate Council meeting that “we have taken nothing off the table.” That same day, President Joe Biden announced he was directing the Labor Department to require all businesses with 100 or more employees to ensure their workers are either vaccinated or tested once a week.
VACCINATION AND CASE RATES
The CMRO released its first case numbers on Sept. 9. On the Pittsburgh campus, 56 students and 22 employees have tested positive for COVID-19 since the beginning of the school year. At the regional campuses there have been 10 student cases — eight at Greensburg and two at Johnstown — and two employees — one each at Johnstown and Bradford.
Overall vaccination rate
Faculty: 78 percent
Staff: 81 percent
Graduate students: 88 percent
Undergraduate students: 85 percent
Faculty: 78 percent
Staff: 81 percent
Graduate students: 88 percent
Undergraduate students: 89 percent
On-campus undergraduate students: 96 percent
Off-campus undergraduate students: 84 percent
Faculty and staff: 74 percent
Students: 74 percent
Faculty and staff: 81 percent
Students: 67 percent
Faculty and staff: 66 percent
Students: 67 percent
Gallagher said he’s asked the Senate leadership to help figure out how to attach the infection control program requirements for access to buildings — vaccines and testing — to other kinds of criteria, such as eligibility for enrollment and employment-based contracts.
“I'm not opposed to these but what I am opposed to is stating there's a requirement without being able to explain what that means to people,” he said. “We’re talking about people's jobs. We're talking about people's education. I think we have a responsibility to get the details right and that's something that I think we should work together with shared governance.”
He said any changes in requirements aren’t imminent, “because we have to work out those details.” But some modifications might come in the spring or later, depending on how the current rules work and the course of the virus.
At Pitt, the number of people submitting proof of vaccination shot up quickly after the start of the semester — rising 10 percent for each of the past two weeks. Pitt requires anyone who has not submitted this proof to get weekly COVID-19 tests. When most classes return to in person on Sept. 13, people will be denied entry into campus buildings if neither of these criteria is met (see related story).
“There’s no way that that number of people got fully vaccinated in one week,” Gallagher said in an interview last week. “What’s happening is reporting and the confirmation system is catching up to the true vaccination rate.”
The first email telling people they need to be tested went out on Aug. 30, Geovette Washington, Pitt’s chief legal officer, said at the Sept. 1 Faculty Assembly meeting. Since then, “We’ve continued to see increases. So those people who thought, ‘Oh I’m gonna ignore this for a while,’ as John (Williams) said, have started to upload their data.” Williams is head of the COVID-19 Medical Response Office.
Washington said those who don’t comply with the testing requirement will face consequences beyond losing access to buildings.
“We have a process that we are working the kinks out of now,” she said. After a warning to get in compliance, students will be referred to Student Conduct and employees to HR for disciplinary action.
The numbers of people who are vaccinated are particularly strong in classrooms and residence halls — environments where people are most concerned about risk of transmission, Gallagher said. The data shows 92 percent of classroom instructors have been vaccinated as well as 97 percent of students living in Pitt-owned buildings in Oakland. Dorm residents were required to show proof of vaccination or an exemption before moving in.
“We are quite confident that the campus environments that we are responsible for, which include our classrooms and our residence halls and other communal environments will continue to be very low-risk environments for transmission,” Gallagher said at the Senate Council meeting. “And the reason for that is that we've required everybody to follow a pretty aggressive infection control program.”
Williams said so far only a small number of people have requested exemptions.
The key, Gallagher said, is that most people in the Pitt community are following the University’s infection control rules. “You can hear the chancellor and other leaders scold people, but what really matters is people buying into this and doing their part to keep themselves and others safe.”
“We are going to see infections. These measures aren’t perfect,” the chancellor said. “But we don’t want to see uncontrolled outbreaks. … They shut things down, they’re impactful and they run the risk of getting people sick, and we don’t want that.”
He stressed that this is an evolving situation. “We continue to watch this very closely. We’re always walking this tightrope between trying to provide certainty and predictability, while being agile to these changing circumstances.”
On Sept. 8, Provost Ann Cudd announced that the two-week pause allowing students and instructors to choose whether they are in-person or remote will end as planned on Sept. 13. The pause gave both the testing and vaccine tracking programs a chance to get up and running.
“We’ve learned a lot over the pandemic in terms of how we can operate classes and how to do things pedagogically that might even be better than we did before,” Gallagher said. “I suspect that learning curve to benefit us as a University, but the way to do that isn’t to extend these blanket flexibilities indefinitely.”
Cudd said Sept. 13 will be a significant day for the Pittsburgh campus. “Seeing everyone on campus and in the classroom after such a long hiatus will be very powerful — and, I hope, energizing for all of us,” she said in her email.
Mandate vs. no mandate
Some universities have taken very harsh stances against those who don’t get vaccinated, such as the University of Virginia which disenrolled 200 students who didn’t comply with the policy.
Gallagher said Pitt’s requirements for vaccine compliance are “very muscular,” including prohibiting access to University buildings to Pitt affiliates who have not followed the COVID-19 safety rules.
“Other universities and colleges in the region aren’t controlling access to buildings the way we are, so you can’t say this isn’t a dramatic change with real consequences,” he said. “You can attach requirements to other things — you can attach it to your ability to enroll for classes; you can attach it to your status as an employee; you can attach it to your ability to carry out certain roles and responsibilities. I actually think it’s important for us to continue those discussions. And the reason I say that is that the virus is not going to magically go away. I think the growing consensus is we’re going to be coexisting with this virus indefinitely.”
The chancellor said he rejects the argument of mandate vs. no mandate. “The real issue here is the details of the policy requirements,” he said. “If we’re going to say something is required, I have a responsibility to explain to people what that requirement is and what happens if you don’t follow it. I’m not going to make an empty statement that we have a requirement and have no intention to follow it. I view that as negligence.”
At Faculty Assembly, several people spoke in support of the University’s current policies, including some who had originally sought a vaccine mandate.
“While I am pro-mandate and a co-writer/signer on a letter sent from the immunology faculty to the chancellor asking for a mandate, I think Pitt’s solution has worked pretty well,” said Douglas Reed, an associate professor of immunology.
Cindy Tananis, emeritus associate professor of education and former Senate Council secretary, said, “I’m impressed with the position Pitt has taken — to strongly encourage and incentivize vaccination and testing. It’s working. The numbers bear that out. Mandates may make us feel better — but enforcement is difficult at best and can also press some toward ‘cheating.’ So, short of full control, which is impossible, perhaps Pitt’s position is actually best!”
Senate Council President Robin Kear encouraged members of Faculty Assembly to reach out to her with their concerns or comments about vaccines and any possible mandate.
Some faculty also raised concerns about teaching in windowless classrooms, particularly in Posvar Hall, or older, less air-efficient spaces, like in the Parkvale Building. Mark Paterson, an associate professor of sociology, said he’s tried to get specific information about air recirculation, but hasn’t had any luck.
Washington said she would make sure to get that information to him and to anyone else who wanted it. General information about steps Pitt has taken to improve cleaning and HVAC on campus can be found on the Facilities Management website.
Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 724-244-4042.
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