By SUSAN JONES
Pitt made it official last week that indoor mask wearing will continue into the fall semester in all University buildings, and unvaccinated students, faculty and staff members (and those who don’t disclose their vaccine status) will have to submit to regular COVID-19 testing.
Because of the increasing number of cases from the Delta variant nationwide and locally and the impending arrival of students on Pitt’s campuses, work has not slowed down for Dr. John Williams, head of Pitt’s COVID-19 Medical Response Office.
“I think everybody hoped that there would be minimal input from the CMRO on this fall,” he said. “And we’re just not there now. As a country, we collectively have not done enough of the right thing.”
For Williams, the right thing is abundantly clear: Get vaccinated.
“There’s just no other way to say it. There’s no two sides to this — the vaccines are safe and effective. Period,” he said. “The goal is to limit transmission. The way to do that is for as many people as feasible to be vaccinated. And for those who are not vaccinated, and therefore more likely to become infected and transmit, they need to be tested regularly and they need to be masked.”
Initially, that will mean once-a-week testing for students, faculty and staff who are unvaccinated and plan to be on campus. The tests will be done through Quest Diagnostics. There will be pick-up locations for on-campus students. Those living off-campus, including faculty and staff, will have the kits mailed to them. The tests will be self-administered and submitted through drop boxes on campus or through the mail. Williams anticipates most test results will be available within 24 hours.
“People who are vaccinated don’t need to be tested unless they’re sick, unless they have symptoms,” he said. “But people who are unvaccinated, that’s the big risk for transmission right now. America is experiencing a pandemic of the unvaccinated.”
Any University employee or student who receives a positive COVID-19 test result must report their diagnosis and provide names of close contacts so that contact tracing can be done. Faculty and staff should call MyHealth@Work at 412-647-4949. Students should call Student Health Service on their campus.
They also must isolate until medically cleared to return to campus. In addition, any unvaccinated person who is notified of a close contact with someone positive for COVID-19 must quarantine away from others and should not circulate in public for 10 days. Vaccinated individuals do not need to quarantine, but should get tested three to five days after exposure.
Pitt will be promoting and educating about vaccines as students, faculty and staff return to campus, and the vaccines will be available to anyone in the Pitt community during all open hours at the Pitt CoVax Vaccination Center on the Fifth Avenue side of Nordenberg Hall. Fall hours will be posted soon. All three approved COVID-19 vaccines are available. You can make an appointment or just walk in.
Students living in residence halls who are unvaccinated or who have not disclosed their vaccine status are required to shelter in place seven days before and after arriving on campus and have a negative COVID-19 test result to enter University housing. All unvaccinated dorm residents and those whose status is undisclosed are required to move in on Aug. 19, so the seven-day shelter-in-place period is completed by the start of classes on Aug. 27.
If students do test positive for COVID-19, Pitt will still provide space for them to isolate and will have a team to support these students, Williams said. Cases of people getting the Delta variant even if they’re vaccinated do happen but are still uncommon, he said. “One thing that’s clear, vaccines are still incredibly effective at preventing against severe disease from Delta.”
The University has taken several steps to strongly encourage everyone in the Pitt community to get vaccinated, but has not gone so far as to mandate it. No public colleges in Pennsylvania are requiring vaccines, but many private schools are, including Carnegie Mellon, Duquesne and Chatham. Outside of the state, some large public colleges, such as the California University system and the University of Michigan, also are mandating vaccines for students and employees.
Williams reiterated what Chancellor Patrick Gallagher has said about mandates at other schools. “The fact is that virtually all the colleges and universities that are saying, ‘Oh, we have a mandate; it’s required,’ they all say, ‘But if you don’t get the vaccine, you get tested all the time and you have to to wear a mask.’ They’re essentially all doing the same thing Pitt is.”
An incentive program Pitt put in place in July gave people a chance to win prizes if they disclosed their vaccination status. Then last week, the University asked Pitt faculty, staff and students to submit proof of vaccination, by uploading a photo of their vaccination card. Anyone who does not provide evidence of being fully vaccinated will be assumed to be unvaccinated, subjecting them to the more-stringent mitigation efforts.
Williams said 85 percent of students living in University housing have disclosed their status, and of those 99 percent are vaccinated.
When to mask
Unlike some other schools, Pitt had never loosened the indoor face covering requirement, but last week’s message reinforced the rules that anyone entering Pitt facilities, regardless of vaccination status, is required to wear a mask, unless they are in an enclosed private office or dwelling.
The mask rules are part of a larger realignment of Pitt’s health and safety standards and guidelines for all of the University’s campuses that does away with the three operational postures and activity area plans used during the 2020-21 school year. The new standards set up different rules depending on whether someone is vaccinated.
For instance, anyone who is not fully vaccinated should wear face coverings when outdoors and unable to maintain physical distancing, but masks are not needed outdoors for those who are vaccinated.
Williams admits there’s not a good way to track mask use outdoors, but the risk of transmission outside is much lower unless people are crammed into a small space.
“You try and focus your public health efforts on what the data support, which is indoor is the big risk,” he said. “And as you know, with the Delta variant, because it’s more transmissible, the risk for everybody is increased of transmission, and thus the CDC has now said everybody indoors should be masked.”
Other fall health standards
The realignment of the health standards has brought several other changes:
Pitt’s campuses are closed to the general public, but open to University members and registered guests. Students in University housing will be allowed up to three guests at a time.
Pitt is not placing COVID-19-related limits on gatherings, occupancy or physical distancing. The University will continue to comply with any local, state and federal gathering guidelines.
University members should follow CDC guidelines for travel, including any travel-related quarantine. Further restrictions may also apply and must be adhered to, as determined by current guidance from the Pennsylvania Department of Health, the Allegheny County Health Department or other county health departments applicable to each campus.
Every international trip must be registered via the Pitt International SOS portal. Booking via Concur/Anthony Travel automatically registers the traveler with ISOS.
Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at email@example.com or 724-244-4042.
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