OU’s Chief COVID Officer Dr. Dale Bratzler provided context for the university’s new masking policy in a Zoom interview Thursday afternoon.
Bratzler announced a university-wide indoor masking policy — which requires faculty, staff, students and campus visitors on all three campuses to wear masks starting immediately — in a Thursday morning statement.
He said in the statement that “we have a tremendous opportunity to take personal responsibility to do those things that we know to be highly effective at preventing person-to-person transmission of the virus — wearing a mask, observing distancing of at least six feet between individuals and practicing good hand hygiene.”
In the Zoom interview, Bratzler said there’s been a recent surge in cases among people in the 18–35 age range, adding that the majority of Oklahomans are still at risk for contracting the disease.
“When you look at the published data that comes out of the state health department, only about four percent of the patients in the state that have been tested for antibodies are positive,” Bratzler said, “meaning that the vast majority of Oklahomans are still at risk.”
University leaders hope to instill a “cultural transformation” in students that recognizes that behavior that doesn’t comply with university mask policy still increases the risk of transmission, even if it happens off campus, Bratzler said. He said OU leaders will be working with Norman Mayor Breea Clark and the City of Norman to promote taking COVID-19 precautions.
“It’s really, really important right now, as we see the surge of new cases, that we really get everybody wearing a mask in all settings where there are people that come together,” Bratzler said.
Considering the rapid transmission of COVID-19 that can occur and the absence of a vaccine for the disease, Bratzler said he worked with a large group of leaders at OU to require mask use by all faculty, staff, students, vendors, contractors and visitors on all three campuses.
“We do that because we know that masks are one of the most effective interventions to prevent the person-to-person transmission of this particular virus,” Bratzler said. “In studies, it’s been shown to be up to 85 percent effective at reducing transmission from person to person, and we felt this was the best way that we could help to ensure the safety of students, faculty and staff coming back on all of our campuses.”
Bratzler said administrators haven’t decided how to enforce the mask policy yet but have considered adding it to the student code. He said there are exceptions to the rule, like when community members are in a private office, outdoors and able to maintain social distance, or eating or drinking.
There are “very explicit rules” for physical distancing that have been put in place at all dining facilities on campus, Bratzler said. He said tables will be separated, and there will be separate doors for entering and exiting so students can avoid passing each other.
He said buffets in dining halls will be replaced by grab-and-go options, and diners will be handed their drinks to avoid touching soda fountains.
“We recognize that there’s a little bit of risk in any dining hall because obviously, you have to take the mask off to eat or drink,” Bratzler said. “So what we’re counting on in those settings is to do as much physical distancing as we possibly can, and the university staff (has) already developed some outstanding plans to keep students and staff safe in that setting.”
Bratzler said there will be a “broad marketing campaign” taking place on all campuses to inform students of the mask policy. He said the Health Sciences Center campus has already largely implemented this policy, as visitors, contractors, physicians, staff and clinical personnel of any kind aren’t allowed without masks.
There will also be signs planted indicating that if people come into university facilities, they’re expected to wear a mask, he said.
Bratzler said administrators are still developing a policy for large gatherings, including football games, but the risk of transmission is reduced in an outdoor setting compared to indoors.
According to the university mask policy, masking requirements for special and sporting events will be determined by Bratzler and other administrators before the date of the event. Masking decisions will be made based on the location and size of the event, current COVID-19 data and the advice of public health and medical experts.
“We’ll be working with ... community leaders, public health experts (and) certainly our leadership at the university to make decisions,” Bratzler said. “So we haven’t made all those decisions at this point. But it is a possibility down the road that wearing masks in those large events may be required.”