OU announced its university-wide masking policy will remain through the spring semester in a Friday afternoon email.
The requirement applies to all employees, students, patients and visitors inside university facilities and vehicles or outdoors on campus where social distancing is not possible, according to the university’s masking policy. This applies to individuals who received the COVID-19 vaccine or have recovered from the virus, according to the email.
COVID-19 vaccines are “effective at protecting you from getting sick,” according to CDC guidelines released March 9. The guidelines, however, state medical officials are “still learning how vaccines will affect the spread of COVID-19” and precautionary measures — such as wearing a mask, staying six feet apart from others and avoiding crowds — should be maintained.
OU’s Chief COVID Officer Dr. Dale Bratzler “carefully reviewed the full text of CDC guidelines,” and included a list of reasons he formed with OU medical and public health experts as to why OU will continue this policy through the spring in the email.
Oklahoma’s current vaccination rate is approximately 10 percent, and herd immunity is about 70 percent, according to the email. OU medical officials said they “are still learning," as officials have discovered newer strains of the virus in South Africa and the United Kingdom and continue to study the vaccine's effectiveness against these strains.
“Even in small pockets of populations with high vaccination rates, it takes one unvaccinated visitor to the arena to present an immediate COVID-19 infection risk,” the email read. “We are still learning the extent to which vaccinated people may carry and spread the virus.”
Removing masking requirements now will “directly result in an increase of thousands of COVID-19 cases and hundreds of COVID-related deaths in Oklahoma,” according to the email. It said masking is credited with the current downward trends of COVID-19, and “to stop masking too soon would be to reverse the gains we have been enjoying.”
“Continued masking buys us time to reach the herd immunity threshold in the safest way possible, which is by vaccinating members of our community,” Aaron Wendelboe, an associate professor of biostatistics and epidemiology at OU’s College of Public Health, wrote in the email.
The email also noted that “there is no way to know if those around you are vaccinated.”
“OU is not currently mandating that students and employees be vaccinated or that they share their vaccination status with their manager, instructor, colleagues, or peers,” the email read. “Employees, students, and members of the public may be on campus and in campus facilities regardless of vaccine status, and we can’t exclude individuals from campus locations solely based on vaccine status."
The email still encouraged students to get vaccinated as, according to the CDC, vaccinations “greatly reduce our risk” of a severe COVID-19 case and hospitalization, can “reduce quarantine time frames in certain circumstances” and proof of vaccination can permit travel to certain countries without mandatory isolation periods.
According to the email, medical and public health experts at OU will continue to guide the university as it adopts and implements COVID-19 safety protocols across its campuses. Changes will be communicated as they are made, and the university anticipates protocols will be revised in the coming months.