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OU community members fear rollback of COVID-19 policies may pose risk to ‘return to normal’ ahead of fall semester

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An OU student apprehensively removes her mask following the shedding of OU's masking and social distancing requirements.

In May, over a year of perpetual pandemic fears were met with a glimmer of hope, as a CDC guideline update noted vaccinated individuals were no longer required to wear masks indoors or practice social distancing. An end to an era of Zoom, isolation and masked gatherings seemed possible, and the summer opened up an opportunity to transition into “a new normal.”

This moment of celebration was followed by uncertainty as universities looked to the fall and wondered how they would manage COVID-19 restrictions. Some opened their doors at fuller capacities with vaccination requirements, while others argued whether COVID-19 vaccinations should be a personal choice.  

In light of these guidelines, OU changed its university-wide masking policy, stating fully vaccinated individuals 12 years of age and older are no longer required to wear a mask during the fall semester. It also eliminated its social distancing protocols in all areas, minus patient care and clinical research participant settings, to resume in-person classes at regular capacity.

Although the university released its Phase IV Return Plan, in the hopes of answering the questions of OU community members, university administration, staff, faculty and students communicated a variety of emotions in response to the shedding of requirements. As OU prepares for a full-capacity campus this fall, the university community called for more clarity and expressed concerns surrounding the university’s COVID-19 guidelines.

Vaccine-related hesitancy, legislation and requirements 

OU Chief COVID Officer Dr. Dale Bratzler and associate professor of biostatistics and epidemiology at the OU Health Sciences CenterDr.Aaron Wendelboe agreed there are likely to be cluster outbreaks of COVID-19 during the fall because not everyone will be vaccinated.

As of July 19, 56.1 percent of people in the U.S. have received at least the first dose of the vaccine and 48.6 percent have received both doses. In Oklahoma, 46 percent of people have received at least the first dose of the vaccine, while 40 percent are fully vaccinated. 

The passage of SB 658, a bill authored by Sen. Rob Standridge (R-Norman) and approved by Gov. Kevin Stitt, prevents Oklahoma universities from mandating vaccinations. The bill prohibits any institution of higher education from requiring COVID-19 vaccines or requiring vaccine passports as a condition of admittance, attendance or implementing a mask mandate.  

Bratzler said he doesn’t agree with SB 658 and encouraged unvaccinated individuals to protect themselves by getting their vaccinations, or the “most effective intervention” against COVID-19.

“The law did explicitly exclude healthcare facilities which can mandate vaccines to protect healthcare workers and patients,” Bratzler said. “I am quite comfortable that fully vaccinated individuals do not need to wear a mask in most settings, but if we were to see an outbreak among unvaccinated students, staff or faculty, we would like to be able to require the wearing of masks.”

OU Health announced July 8 it will require faculty, staff, trainees and students on rotations and employees inpatient and non-patient settings to be fully vaccinated by Aug. 31. Staff is allowed to decline the vaccine under limited circumstances, including medical contradiction and religious belief.

OU’s former Director of Media Relations Kesha Keith wrote in an email after revisions of its COVID-19 protocols the university “strongly recommends” all unvaccinated individuals wear masks while inside OU's academic, athletic, housing and administrative facilities, although it won’t be enforced.  

Keith wrote unvaccinated individuals are encouraged to set up a free vaccination appointment through OU Health Services. She also wrote that, as of May 24, OU Health Services stopped offering free COVID-19 tests. Patients with insurance should not have any out-of-pocket costs for a covered COVID-19 test, but she wrote they should check with their health plan to confirm before scheduling a test.

Although OU is not requiring vaccinations for students, faculty and staff based on state legislation, a federal ruling regarding vaccination requirements at Indiana University seems to be the first example of a court upholding a vaccine mandate. The judge cited the 14th Amendment, which he said allows Indiana University to “pursue a reasonable and due process of vaccination in the legitimate interest of public health for its students, faculty and staff.”

Other colleges and universities have mandated COVID-19 vaccinations, including Columbia University, Duke University, University of Delaware, the California Institute of Technology and Johns Hopkins University. Some are requiring faculty and students to be vaccinated, while others only mandate vaccinations for students living on campus. 

Bratzler encouraged OU community members who don’t feel comfortable with the updated masking policy to wear a mask at any indoor event.

“Wearing a mask does provide protection for the person wearing it,” Bratzler said. “Remember that the risk of transmission of the virus remains low outdoors, but wearing a mask at any indoor event can afford some protection.”

Wendelboe said because health experts and the university cannot require COVID-19 vaccinations, he has been trying to address vaccine hesitancy in Oklahoma, where he said there is “a huge emphasis on personal freedoms.”

“I'm trying to set up a town hall so that we can let people who have concerns about getting vaccinated talk about the issues, see if they want more information, express their concerns or, (if) there is something else,” Wendelboe said. “Because what I have learned is that each community and each person seems to have specific issues, and I don't know that we can address that with one, two or three different public health messages.”

Delta Variant

Bratzler said his biggest concern for the fall is the COVID-19 delta variant is currently circulating in Oklahoma. First identified in India and classified as a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization, Bratzler said the variant still imposes risks to fully vaccinated individuals.  

Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Joseph Biden’s chief medical adviser and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said the delta variant is responsible for more than 70 percent of recent COVID-19 cases in some parts of the U.S. In Oklahoma, 231 delta variant cases were identified as of July 14, accounting for 33.6 percent of variant cases in the state. 

The delta variant has significantly increased transmission and is responsible for new outbreaks of COVID-19 in a growing number of countries. Its multiple alterations of the virus’ genetic material — specifically in the spike protein — may account for its quick spread and transmissibility.  

“We know that the variant is 50 to 60 percent more transmissible. In other words, it spreads easier from one person to another,” Bratzler said. “Preliminary data suggests that patients who get infected with the delta variant actually are sicker, more likely to have complications (and) more likely to end up in the hospital.”

Although the university constantly updates its COVID-19 dashboard, which includes Cleveland County and regional area statistics alongside Goddard Health Center results, a university spokesperson wrote in a July 9 email they are unable to provide variant-specific information because variant testing is “not readily available or done on a regular basis in Oklahoma.” 

Bratzler wrote in a July 19 email that variant information is available in the Oklahoma State Department of Health’s weekly epidemiology and surveillance report. The university spokesperson wrote OU will consider modifying its testing procedures “in the event variant testing becomes more available.” 

Even though vaccines are not 100 percent effective, Wendelboe said COVID-19 vaccines are highly effective against the emerging variants.

“I think that what people want is a guarantee, and there's never a guarantee in life,” Wendelboe said. “But as far as me personally, my family and friends and then, of course, working in a public health community, I can still share with people confidently (that) if you get vaccinated, you're going to be able to go out into the community and get back to that new normal.”

Bratzler said he has been impressed by students who complied with masking policies during the peak of the pandemic, and he hopes that enthusiasm will continue into the fall semester.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is not over,” Bratzler said. “Many of us are concerned that we may see outbreaks in the fall and winter months when K-12 and colleges and universities go back to full capacity. We need to maintain our vigilance and watch out for outbreaks closely.” 

Community reflection on OU COVID-19 new policies

OU students and staff expressed apprehension toward the fall COVID-19 guidelines while also indulging in the optimism of “normalcy.” Personal health concerns and risks of exposure for vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals have created anxiety throughout the OU community,  as they consider what no masks and full-capacity classrooms could mean for the university this fall.

OU library technician and administrative assistant Jay Edwards said despite the implementation of OU’s Phase IV Return plan, he is concerned about his health and the health of others.

Edwards has a genetic lung condition that he said will only be an issue if he were to smoke or contract COVID-19, so he continues to wear his mask for his safety. He said he has friends, family and co-workers with medical exemptions and compromised immune systems, which has prompted concerns for him surrounding the spread of the  delta variant.

“I still would like to see more masking right now … because I’m concerned with not only my health, but (also) the health of other people,” Edwards said. “(Masking) seemed to be very helpful in preventing the spread of disease, not just COVID-19, but also the regular flu, stomach bugs and colds.”

With masking policies slowly dwindling from public spaces, Edwards said he is seeking salvation in vaccination clarity. Edwards said he understands there are rules and protocols on the health information of others, specifically concerning HIPAA but believes the university should still aim for transparency.

“I would love the university to be able to require vaccinations like they do with other kinds of vaccinations required by law,” Edwards said. “If they can’t, I would like to see the university give us numbers on vaccination rates at OU.”

Nearly one year ago, the university encountered a similar problem of not meeting student expectations for COVID-19 procedures, ultimately invoking fear in returning students. Students Torey Henderson and Persephone Himes described their fears of infecting immunocompromised family members and personal autoimmune diseases that, when paired with COVID-19,  threaten survival.

Coupled with the decreasing remote-work accommodations for students and faculty, students held a die-in protest last year to express their disapproval surrounding the COVID-19 protocols in place. This year, students are counting on the university to consider their opinions.

Robby Frost, a sophomore meteorology student, said he generally supports the university’s fall COVID-19 policies, but his support comes with a mix of anxiety and excitement.

“I still have that fear in the back of my mind that something’s going to go wrong, or we’re going to have to go back to the way things were in the fall and spring,” Frost said.

Frost said it was good timing to lift the mask mandate with a reduced number of students on campus in the summer to see how it would work. He said he hopes there’s a protocol to quickly tighten COVID-19 procedures in the event there is a big spike on campus and an initiative to get more students vaccinated.

“My main fear is how many people are not vaccinated, but they have not made it a requirement for students and staff. … I would definitely feel a lot better if that was done because then you would know everyone walking around without a mask has at least been vaccinated,” Frost said.

While Frost is content with most of the policies and procedures in place for the fall, he wants the university to consider student’s anxieties. Frost said he’s excited to get back to normal but hopes the university won’t have to revert to its 2020-21 COVID-19 policies.

“I would hope the school would take notice of the things that have been concerning people … and address them … or (say) ‘we are going to change the policy because we’ve heard these concerns,’” Frost said. “I would also hope that would cause them to crack down on getting more people vaccinated or at least encourage more people to get the vaccine,” Frost said.

OU’s campus dynamics after lifting its masking policy

OU Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students  David Surratt wrote in an email that all individuals who wish to continue wearing a mask “can, and should certainly do so based upon their comfort level.” 

Surratt wrote those who can provide health documentation to support special accommodations due to circumstances presented by COVID-19 should register with the ADRC

While COVID-19 vaccinations aren’t required for most OU community members, Surratt wrote he still encourages the community to get vaccinated.

“Ultimately, I am an advocate for vaccinations regardless of any changes to the masking policy,” Surratt wrote.

OU Faculty Senate Chair Keri Kornelson wrote in an email that she is “reassured” because OU’s administration will continue to track COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations along with Dr. Bratzler. She wrote this will ensure a quick response from the university if there is a surge in cases during the fall. 

“The senate encourages everyone who is eligible to get vaccinated and will continue to promote the recommendations of epidemiologists as OU determines policies for the fall,” Kornelson wrote. “I will encourage the administration and (Human Resources) to accommodate students, staff or faculty members who have compromised immune systems or other reasons that they are not able to safely return to normal on-campus activities.”

Because OU is not requiring documentation or proof of vaccination, Wendelboe said there has been discussion on what type of information would be required and how it would logistically implement its return plan. Ultimately, he said the university decided to rely on the “honor system.” 

“Honestly, there's so many ways that people can get around providing honest information that we feel that the honor policy is really the best policy to implement at these campus levels, recognizing that, yes, there are some people that are probably going to falsify that information, and they may not be 100 percent truthful,” Wendelboe said. “I do not think that that level of dishonesty, alone, is going to cause outbreaks of COVID-19.I'm fully confident that we're actually going to see a surge in COVID-19, at least by default, if not maybe even earlier.” 

In response to the fear of potential outbreaks and protecting the university’s most vulnerable students during the fall, Surratt wrote OU will continue to carefully monitor its COVID-19 related decisions.

“As has been the case since the onset of the pandemic, OU continues to prioritize the safety, health and welfare of all of its community members,” Surratt wrote. “Any decision made on a host of hypotheticals will be made in close consultation with our medical and public health experts, and that advice will be presented to a group of executive leaders and university representatives.”

Jillian Taylor contributed to this report

Gabriela Tumani is an international student from Brazil. She is majoring in journalism with a minor in international studies and works as a junior news reporter for The Daily.

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