Takeaways from the Aug. 11 Town Hall

August 16, 2021

Campus leaders fielded questions about new policies on masking and vaccines, and shared details about the fall academic plan.

Fall 2021 at UM-Dearborn is shaping up to be a much different semester than Fall 2020. A year ago, we had very few tools to stop the spread of COVID-19 other than masking and social distancing; now we have powerful vaccines that are safe, free, widely available and highly effective. Thankfully, that means in-person instruction is once again going to be the norm at UM-Dearborn, though with some additional policies in place to keep everyone safe and healthy. To answer questions about the plan for the fall semester, campus leaders and Dr. Preeti Malani, U-M’s Chief Health Officer, recently hosted a virtual town hall. We’ve summarized some of the big takeaways below, in case you missed it. Or, you can view the entire one-hour video.

The latest on Delta, breakthrough cases and vaccine safety

A couple months ago — or even a few weeks ago — case counts were low and it looked like things were more or less heading back to something resembling normal. So why are we now requiring face coverings and vaccinations? In a word: Delta. Malani explained that this new variant of the coronavirus is far more contagious than the original strain, and that’s driving the surge in cases that we’re seeing in Michigan and elsewhere. The vaccines offer strong protection, even against Delta, which is why the recent case surge has been almost exclusively among the unvaccinated. There have been occasional “breakthrough” cases in vaccinated people. But thankfully, if you’re vaccinated, Malani said your symptoms are likely to be much milder and you’re very unlikely to end up in a hospital. Wearing a mask indoors is still going to be important, however, because it is possible for vaccinated people to spread this more contagious strain to others.

As far as vaccine safety, here’s what Malani had to say: “Hundreds of millions of doses have been given not just in the United States but all over the world, with very small numbers of serious safety concerns, on the order of a few per million. I have members of my extended family who are still nervous and haven’t been vaccinated, so I try to come to this with a lot of humility. And even if there are still unknowns, because this hasn’t been around that long, we know a lot about COVID and there is just no question in terms of safety. Especially in this moment, I would say that broad vaccination is really our only way back to something that feels like normal...Unlike a year ago, we are not powerless against SARS-CoV-2.”

So given the risks from new variants, why don't we just stay remote?

Without a doubt, faculty, staff and students did a pretty heroic job of pivoting to remote learning when the pandemic first hit. And that was necessary primarily because keeping our distance from one another was our best way to stay safe. But things have changed in fundamental ways since last fall. First, we know a lot more about the coronavirus, how it spreads and the efficacy of masking. And most importantly, we have vaccines that are very effective at preventing severe illness. Figuring out how to live life during the pandemic has always been about managing risks and benefits of everyday activities. And this fall, unlike last fall, we have a set of tools capable of making in-person instruction a low-risk activity. “If you have a highly vaccinated, highly masked population...I’m not concerned about the safety of coming back — with the caveat that campus cannot be safer than the community,” Malani said at the town hall. “So by doing our part as members of the community, we can keep community spread in check.”

In other words, based on the current science, campus leaders have made the judgement that the benefits of in-person instruction now outweigh the risks — if everyone is vaccinated and everyone wears a face covering. “I think it’s important that we get back to an educational system that supports our students and faculty...and provides the best learning opportunity for them,” Chancellor Domenico Grasso said. “As Dr. Malani pointed out, if you’re vaccinated, you’re pretty safe; this is why we’re requiring vaccinations. And if you’re vaccinated and wearing a mask, you’re even safer.” Right now, the fall academic class schedule features in-person instruction at 62 percent of campus density. But if conditions change, the colleges have plans in place to pivot to less density or completely remote instruction. As before, any COVID infections within the campus community will be handled with a contact tracing system and quarantine measures when necessary.

So how are we going to enforce the vaccine and face covering policies?

This is one of the biggest questions for fall, and the short answer is: leadership is still working on the details. Dean of Students Amy Finley said students can expect to get the full enforcement policy soon. As stated before, students must have completed, or received at least the initial dose of, the COVID-19 vaccination and submit their proof of vaccination information no later than August 30. U-M will grant limited exemptions for valid medical and religious reasons. To be considered for a vaccination exemption, please complete the COVID-19 Vaccination Exemption Request Form. Those who are granted exemptions will be required to submit a weekly negative COVID test before being on campus. For privacy reasons, faculty will not be given student rosters that include vaccination status. However, faculty who are comfortable will be allowed to enforce the face covering policy in their classrooms under the same policies we had last fall.

Faculty and staff can also expect details about enforcement policies soon. However, UM-Dearborn Human Resources Director Rima Berry-Hung said that faculty and staff who don’t want to comply with the vaccine requirement and have not been granted an exemption will be asked to talk with a designated public health advisor to address specific vaccine questions. Folks who don’t comply with the vaccine policy or have an exemption will also be subject to “appropriate campus disciplinary procedures.” What those procedures are will be communicated soon.

Other good-to-knows

A few more notable details from the town hall:

  • Malani said she’s been getting lots of questions about booster shots from those who received the J&J vaccine, as some research indicates this one-shot vaccine may not be quite as effective against the Delta variant. Currently, the CDC is not recommending booster shots for J&J recipients, but she said we can likely expect some guidance on that shortly. Also, she said full FDA approval of the Pfizer vaccine is likely “in the next week or two.”
  • The welcome back picnic for faculty and staff has been postponed.
  • The Hub is working on resources to aid in situations where traditional face coverings could interfere with learning. This includes things like microphones to amplify voices in the classroom, and transparent masks for language classes. Plastic face shields are not considered a substitute for masking.
  • You can check on our progress getting everyone vaccinated at the COVID-19 Dashboard. That data are updated every Monday.

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Story by Lou Blouin. Go here to watch the entire video of the Aug. 11 Town Hall event.

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