UVA Leaders, Public Health Experts Review Masking Policy, Semester Start in Town Hall

Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications

In a virtual town hall held Wednesday afternoon, University of Virginia leaders and public health experts answered questions and reviewed plans for a semester that will begin amid optimism around vaccination rates and concern about the delta variant of the COVID-19 virus. 

The town hall came one week before students move into dormitories for the fall semester, and several days after the University announced a temporary indoor masking policy in response to the delta variant, which is highly transmissible and driving surges around the country. 

The masking policy, which went into effect Monday, requires students, faculty and staff to wear masks indoors regardless of vaccination status. It covers University-owned or leased public spaces like academic and administrative buildings, dining halls, libraries, labs and recreation facilities, but does not cover dormitories or private housing, which officials said will be largely full of vaccinated people, and easier to monitor should cases arise. UVA officials hope to modify or lift the policy by Sept. 6. 

During Wednesday’s town hall, University leaders said the policy is a temporary way to mitigate transmission as students arrive from around the country and around the world. Gathering limits and physical distancing protocols – a difficult hallmark of the 2020-21 school year – are no longer in place, allowing major events like Wahoo Welcome – a series of events around move-in – and home football games to continue as planned.

Overall, leaders were optimistic that UVA’s high vaccination rates – more than 90% among students and Academic Division faculty and staff and more than 98% among students living on Grounds – will help keep the delta variant at bay.

“We are not in the same position we were in last year,” UVA President Jim Ryan said. “We are in a much better and much different position than we were last year, primarily because of the vaccines and the extraordinarily high vaccination rate in our community. This means we can return in person to classes, activities, sporting events and research labs as we have been planning to do in the fall semester, with the residential experiences that are at the heart of this university.

“Our aim in making policy decisions about safety and health has been driven by a desire to balance the real risk posed by the delta variant with the fact that we are a very highly vaccinated community.”

Even amid that balancing act, Vice President and Chief Student Affairs Officer Robyn Hadley reiterated that administrators, faculty and staff members are thrilled and eager to welcome students back.

“We should keep front and center that, for many young people and their families, arriving on Grounds will in the next few days will be a dream come true. They have worked so hard and have had to make so many adjustments,” she said. “We will be doing as much in person as we can while also keeping folks safe.”

And, Hadley said, her team is determined to “bring the happy” and help students – especially younger students who have not experienced a “normal” semester on Grounds – feel as connected to their UVA home as possible. (A full schedule of “Wahoo Welcome” orientation and new student programs is available here.)

Ryan and Hadley were joined on the call by Provost Liz Magill, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer J.J. Davis, Executive Vice President for Health Affairs Dr. K. Craig Kent and Director of Hospital Epidemiology Dr. Costi Sifri. A recording of the full town hall will be posted here.

Sifri offered an overview of the state of the virus locally and nationally. Like most of the country, most areas in Virginia are currently seeing substantial or high transmission of COVID-19 and a climbing test positivity rate, now about 9% statewide. Virus sequencing shows that about 90% of the cases in the area surrounding UVA are due to the delta variant, Sifri said.

“The delta variant has different biological properties compared to earlier strains. … It is about 50% more transmissible than the alpha variant [that originated in the U.K. in the spring], which was about 50% more infectious than earlier strains of the virus,” he said. “Importantly, vaccines are protective against the delta variant. They prevent infection and they are very effective in preventing hospitalization and other serious outcomes.”

Still, Sifri said, it is important to pay attention to breakthrough cases and to some early studies showing that even vaccinated people can carry high viral loads of the delta variant and possibly transmit it to others, something that researchers have not seen in previous strains of the virus.

“This is not a reason to panic; it remains the case that people who are vaccinated are much safer from infection than unvaccinated people,” Sifri said. “But we should expect that breakthrough infections will occur, and may be more common with the delta variant. They will still be relatively uncommon, but they are noteworthy and we will hear about them in the news cycle.”

If a vaccinated student becomes infected with COVID-19, he or she will need to be isolated. Vaccinated students who are exposed to COVID, but not symptomatic, will not need to quarantine, but will need to follow testing, contact tracing and masking protocols. More information about UVA’s quarantine and isolation procedures will be available soon, leaders said during the town hall.

“The people in this community have gone the extra mile to keep not only themselves, but others healthy and safe. For that, we are extraordinarily grateful.”

- UVA President Jim Ryan

They continued to urge every member of the UVA community to get vaccinated against COVID-19. The vaccines are required for students, unless they apply for and are granted a medical or religious exemption; and all faculty and staff also are expected to be vaccinated unless they have a medical or religious reason to forgo the vaccine. Any student or staff member who is not vaccinated will be required to wear masks both indoors and outdoors when they are around others, and must appear for weekly COVID-19 testing.

Anyone wishing to be vaccinated can make an appointment by calling 434-297-4829 or schedule an appointment here. More information about UVA’s coronavirus policies and procedures is available at coronavirus.virginia.edu, which is regularly updated.

As he concluded his remarks, Ryan thanked everyone listening for doing their part to slow the spread of the virus and making the coming academic year as successful as possible.

“Once again, as throughout this entire pandemic, the people in this community have gone the extra mile to keep not only themselves, but others healthy and safe,” he said. “For that, we are extraordinarily grateful. We recognize [the masking policy] is an inconvenience as the semester begins … but we believe it is the best way to bring everyone back safely and begin a successful year together here on Grounds.”

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