Returning to campus, vaccines are focus in town hall

The vaccinations and preparations that will pave the way for a campus bustling with students, faculty and staff this fall were the focus in an April 29 town hall with senior university leaders and medical experts.

Senior leaders announced April 19 that with COVID-19 presenting less of a risk due to vaccines, Iowa State plans to resume its pre-pandemic mode this fall -- including in-person classes, services and other operations. Staff who were working remotely during the pandemic will return to their campus workspaces by Aug. 2. Faculty will return by Aug. 19. 

While appropriate science-based health and safety practices will continue, numerous risk mitigation measures established during the pandemic will be adjusted in the coming months. In early June, information will be released about issues such as office space and capacity, cleaning protocols and ventilation, President Wendy Wintersteen said. New guidelines for gatherings and events should be released soon, said John Lawrence, Moving Forward Coordinating Committee chair and vice president of extension and outreach.

For now, the face covering policy remains in effect, Wintersteen, Lawrence and associate vice president for student health and wellness Erin Baldwin affirmed in a May 5 campus message. A decision on face covering requirements for the fall will be announced in mid-July, they said. 

Work flex rules by October

Based on feedback in the 2017 campus climate survey and the work of the child care task force, university human resources (UHR) was already developing a program to give staff more flexibility in their work hours and locations before COVID-19 struck, said Kristi Darr, vice president for UHR.

The widespread remote work for safety reasons during the pandemic threw a wrench in that process, Darr said. Returning to the workplace before rolling out new guidelines on flexible work is important for properly aligning the program, she said. Wintersteen said the flexible work program will be comprehensive and consider many options. 

"Once employees return to campus and the work flex program is finalized in October, careful planning and conversations can occur for implementing this program in departments and units," she said. 

Wintersteen praised the resiliency, adaptability and commitment of faculty and staff during the pandemic, both those who continued to work on campus and those who have operated remotely for more than a year -- a temporary but necessary arrangement. 

"It was a big change when we made the abrupt shift to remote work last spring, and we know it will be a big change returning to campus this summer," she said. 

See UHR's FAQ about returning to campus for more information.

Vaccination plans

Through April 28, ISU has vaccinated 5,923 people, including more than 5,100 students, said Baldwin, director of Thielen Student Health Center. That does not include individuals who have been vaccinated off campus.

The university currently is offering Pfizer second doses and one-shot Johnson and Johnson vaccines to all students and employees at its mass vaccination clinic in State Gym. Sign up online to receive the Johnson and Johnson vaccine on May 6-7. Pfizer second doses are available May 11-13 and 18-20. 

Another call this week for employees to volunteer to work nonclinical roles at the clinic quickly filled up all needed shifts. Volunteers have been critical to operating the clinic.

"Thanks to everyone for doing your part to help us get to the other side of the pandemic," Wintersteen said. 

Recent changes in Iowa Department of Public Health regulations allow the clinic to provide first or second doses of a two-shot vaccine even if the other dose has been or will be administered at a different location, Baldwin said. 

Another mass vaccination clinic may be held in the fall when students return to campus. Baldwin said she's been excited by vaccine interest on campus.

"We want all of our students and employees to have the opportunity to be in the classroom, attend athletic events, spend time with family and friends, and find their community of people that makes Iowa State such a special place to be," she said. 

While Iowa State encourages the campus community to get vaccinated, it doesn't have the authority to require it for students or employees. Requiring a vaccine approved under an emergency authorization is arguably not legal under federal law, plus the state Board of Regents has prohibited COVID-19 vaccine requirements for 2020-21 and a state bill barring COVID-19 vaccine requirements is likely to pass, university counsel Michael Norton said.

Vaccines effective

A fall semester close to pre-pandemic normal is possible because of the effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccines. They are more than 90% effective after people are fully vaccinated and, for the two-shot vaccines, close to 70-80% after the first dose, said Dan Fulton, an infectious disease specialist at McFarland Clinic in Ames.

Fulton recommends that anyone unsure about getting a vaccine talk to their doctor.  

"Every day we are getting more information, and now 150 million Americans are vaccinated," he said. "Generally, we have very safe vaccines, and the result so far has been dramatic: fewer infections, fewer hospitalizations."

He believes vaccinations for those as young as 12 could be approved in May, and trials are beginning to study use in even younger children. While parents with small children may be concerned about the risks of school or child care, large outbreaks of COVID-19 haven't occurred in those settings in the Ames area -- in part due to diligent use of face coverings, Fulton said. 

Also, children typically don't get as sick from COVID-19 as adults, and the risk of vaccinated parents bringing the virus home to infect children is low, he said. Regardless, Fulton acknowledged it is "weird" and "hard" for parents returning to the office after working remotely. 

"But you spend one or two days back, and all of a sudden it's kind of normal to be here again," he said. "Do what you can do, be thoughtful."