A safe, healthy campus community and an educational experience that contains as many aspects as possible of a "normal" fall were the focus of the Aug. 19 town hall for faculty and staff. Guests Dan Fulton, infectious disease specialist with McFarland Clinic, and Les White, Story County public health director, joined ISU senior leaders to respond to questions about beginning the academic year while COVID-19 remains a threat in this country.
"Thank you for your continued efforts to make the semester a success," said President Wendy Wintersteen. "We deeply appreciate faculty and staff for their commitment and care for students and for each other."
Wintersteen -- and others -- reiterated the university's approach is to encourage every employee and student to be vaccinated. A series of free vaccination clinics on campus opened in mid-August and continues through at least the end of September. The Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are available.
Associate vice president for student health and wellness Erin Baldwin said she anticipates approval within a month of a federal proposal to offer a third vaccine dose, and when that happens, employees would be able to receive that dose on campus. Immunocompromised employees and students, for whom a third dose is approved, are welcome to receive their third dose at any of the campus vaccination clinics, she said.
Four simple behaviors to protect your health and the well-being of the university community:
- Monitor your health
- Stay home if you're ill
- Wash your hands often
Fulton said vaccines are a little less effective against the delta variant of the COVID-19 virus. Efficacy will go up again with a third dose, though the medical community still doesn't know what the optimum vaccine series is for the longest-lasting immunity, he noted. Vaccines are the surest way to avoid serious illness.
The federal government's full approval -- not emergency use status -- of the available vaccines (which occurred since the town hall for the Pfizer vaccine) could not immediately change the university's policy on vaccination, said university counsel Michael Norton. The university also must heed state and state Board of Regents policies.
Norton said the university has no means to track the vaccination status of employees or students and can't require vaccination. County public health and the state department of public health have the most complete data, he said.
Baldwin said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's recommendation is to wear a face covering indoors, even if you're vaccinated. It adds a layer of protection and is another way to support the larger Cyclone community, she said.
The regents' policy also encourages mask wearing in indoor spaces in the presence of other people. Face masks are required in a few exceptions: CyRide buses, Thielen Student Health Center, College of Veterinary Medicine areas where face masks normally are required, and Ames Laboratory facilities. Principal investigators or lab supervisors may set the mask rule for their own campus research laboratories.
Fulton said lots of data is available on masks as a mitigating strategy against infection. When worn correctly and consistently over time, masks can cut infection rates 66% to 70% by decreasing exposure. Even around others not wearing masks, they reduce exposure for their wearers, he said.
Leave options for employees
Wintersteen said the university received state Board of Regents approval for workplace modifications to protect immunocompromised employees or their household members who meet the definition set by the CDC. The regents also approved a second 80-hour bank of COVID-19 paid sick time off for the 2022 fiscal year (July 1, 2021-June 30, 2022). An Aug. 20 memo from vice president for university human resources Kristi Darr shared the details of these two additions.
Safe classrooms and offices
Wintersteen and senior vice president and provost Jonathan Wickert both thanked faculty and staff for their letters and petitions advocating for science-based COVID mitigation strategies. Wintersteen said she has received letters, too, from individuals who don't want to see vaccine or mask mandates on campus.
"We take these concerns seriously," she said. "The feedback is appreciated, and we are sharing these concerns and feedback with the regents."
In fact, the new employee leave options emerged from subsequent discussion among board staff members and Faculty Senate leaders.
Wickert said the goals for fall semester are to keep campus as safe as possible and provide a high-quality in-person learning experience while avoiding last year's double-teaching phenomenon (faculty teaching the same course online and in person). He encouraged faculty to have class discussions early on about topics like group work or pair work in class and attendance expectations. New this fall is that a student's positive COVID test result should be considered appropriate documentation for an excused absence, for which they can receive make-up materials.
He reminded faculty additional syllabus statements on vaccine, masking and physical distancing recommendations were prepared for the 2021-22 academic year. Faculty should encourage students to follow the measures and model the behavior they seek in their students.
In response to faculty concerns about keeping office hours in close quarters without a mask mandate, Wickert encouraged office hours "in 2019 mode." Virtual office hours may supplement but shouldn't replace in-person office hours, he said. Faculty also should consider other spaces for office hours, such as a conference room in their building or one of the college tents erected on campus to assist with academic continuity.
Positive COVID-19 tests
As of last week, White said the county was averaging 20 new COVID-19 cases a day, with 40% of current cases in 18- to 29-year-olds.
Anyone who tests positive for COVID-19, even if they don't show symptoms, should isolate for at least 10 days, Baldwin said.
Fulton said he expects a rise in COVID-19 cases in Iowa later this fall as people spend more time indoors, similar to a year ago. The difference this year, he noted, are the "incredibly effective" vaccines, which will mean fewer hospitalizations and deaths from the disease.