Pitt community warned to be vigilant, even though COVID rates falling


University leaders and members of the Pitt COVID Medical Response Office told Senate Council that even though COVID-19 vaccinations have increased, and overall case numbers have decreased since the fall, the Pitt community can’t let its guard down just yet.

Overall, things are slightly improving, John Williams, head of Pitt's COVID-19 Medical Response Office, said during the meeting on March 25.

Pitt, in partnership with the Allegheny County Health Department, has provided 10,000 vaccines, said Melissa McGivney, the associate dean for community partnerships at the School of Pharmacy, and 2,900 people have been fully vaccinated. 

Additionally, the University received a temporary allocation of 500 doses of Moderna vaccine to help make vaccine distribution more equitable for healthcare workers and people 65 and older. 

McGivney, who gave her update from the Petersen Events Center, the vaccine distribution site, also thanked the 1,000-plus Pitt volunteers who have been a part of the vaccination efforts. 

And with Health Department, on March 24, extending its vaccine eligibility criteria to include people 18 and older who have Phase 1A health conditions, vaccines should become more widely available soon. 

“I do want to share with you all that we're starting to get to the point very soon, over the next few weeks, … where those that really want to be vaccinated are going to be able to be vaccinated,” McGivney said.

McGivney added that medical professionals have provided people getting the vaccine with “a large amount” of education about how the vaccine works. This is because the information is frequently distributed through word-of-mouth, casual conversations between neighbors and friends.

This strategy can help provide more information on what to expect after the vaccine.

“Most importantly, a lot of folks are thinking how they feel after they get vaccinated is a side effect,” McGivney said. “And as a pharmacist, that's not a side effect. It's the immune system revving up. 

“One of the most important things that you can do as you're talking about the vaccine is to remind people that if they have a little fever, a headache, some chills, a little tiredness, their immune system’s doing their job. And so that's something to be celebrated and very short-lived.”

But the Pitt community can’t relax just yet.

Between March 10 and 22, six students have tested positive for COVID, and 39 students are in isolation, according to the Pitt COVID Dashboard. Two new faculty or staff cases also have been reported. No new cases have been found in the regional campuses.

Chancellor Patrick Gallagher said there has been an uptick in cases, mostly because of student behavior off-campus.

Dean of Students Kenyon Bonner said he received reports that students were hosting gatherings throughout the St. Patrick’s Day week and weekends and during the self-care day on March 24.

Bonner said that this behavior could jeopardize upcoming in-person commencement ceremony plans. 

“And we would love to celebrate the end of the year, and in-person with their families,” Bonner said. “The behavior that students are exhibiting now could potentially negatively impact that on campus.” 

Additionally, Bonner said his office is concerned about the commonwealth’s plan to ease restrictions on bars and restaurants on April 4.

“April 4 is another day that all of us will be tested in terms of our resolve,” Bonner said. “I think right now, our focus is to channel all of our energy and effort on where the issues are occurring, and that's been off-campus, particularly with our juniors and seniors. And so that's the population that we really need to continue to cooperate with us. On-campus, things are looking really good.”

Off-campus behavior also affects the University’s operational posture decision-making process, Gallagher said. 

Gallagher said that medical experts carefully make recommendations and decisions on the operational postures. The University, he said, has “tried to be very careful to apply measures that are health measures and not punitive measures.”

Shelter-in-place orders and other similar restrictions mostly impact on-campus residents and activities. However, if cases rise to a certain point, they will inevitably have effects off campus.

Gallagher also noted that he’s seen many students on campus wearing masks and taking additional safety precautions.

“It’s not easy now when, sort of, the tone that's being sent all around you is that we're relaxing, and we're getting near the end, and things are opening up and it's warm weather,” Gallagher said. “And the fact that you're still setting an example and taking care of not only yourself but those around you, is not going unnoticed.”

Commencement plans

Kathy Humphrey, senior vice chancellor for Engagement, revealed some of the University’s plans for upcoming commencement ceremonies.

Graduates will be celebrated the entire month of April, she said, with various programming. Much of the programming will be virtual, but there will be in-person events as well depending on the status of the pandemic.

The programs will offer students career tips, such as how to negotiate salaries and help connect graduates with alumni in different cities.

Humphrey said Pitt wants those who register for graduation but can’t make it in person to still have a graduation celebration. Graduates will receive a “celebration bag” that will contain items to help them, and their families, celebrate at home.

Graduating students coming in person will have the option to bring two people with them, depending on COVID rates around that time.

Ceremonies for the Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences and the Swanson School of Engineering are scheduled to take place at PNC Park. The other ceremonies will be held in the Petersen Events Center. 

Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at dharrell@pitt.edu or 412-383-9905. 


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