Town hall: University and community prepared to manage increased cases
A plan that university and community leaders began forming last spring to control the spread of the coronavirus in Blacksburg and on Virginia Tech’s campus is working. But everyone has a responsibility to keep it moving in a successful and safe direction, said Virginia Tech President Tim Sands; Leslie Hager-Smith, Blacksburg mayor; and Noelle Bissell, director of the New River Valley Health District, during a virtual town hall on Sept. 3.
The three leaders discussed various topics during the morning event, including COVID-19 cases in the community, the disease testing and tracing process, Virginia Tech’s new online dashboard to report cases, recently announced football tailgating rules, and more.
“This is a generational challenge that we are facing,” Sands said. “To our students especially, this is not the way we are used to living. This is not the way it will be in the future, but I respect our students, our faculty, our staff, and community members for the way they have taken this challenge on.”
The panel also encouraged students to make safe choices for the upcoming Labor Day weekend and discouraged travel outside of Blacksburg.
“Collectively, our individual actions are going to direct the trajectory of the disease,” Bissell said.
Below are some of the topics highlighted during the discussion. Watch the full town hall, streamed via YouTube.
The rise in COVID-19 cases at Virginia Tech
Since Aug. 9, there have been 178 positive cases of COVID-19 at Virginia Tech. This cumulative number has increased since the time that students arrived on campus for the fall semester. But the increase was expected, said Bissell.
“We know how this disease is spread,” she said. “We know that it is through close social connections. We have people coming into a more dense living setting. It’s not at all unexpected that we would see a rise in cases.”
Over time, Bissell said she expects that COVID-19 cases will plateau, as they have in the city of Radford, which experienced a spike in positive cases when students returned to Radford University several weeks ago.
Also, she noted that Virginia Tech student cases are staying within the student population and not spreading into the community, which is a positive indicator. The New River Valley Health District conducts the university’s contact tracing process, which begins with identifying close contacts to a positive case and conducting a risk assessment.
“In general, they [students] tend to be a very low-risk population,” Bissell said. “A lot of them have no symptoms at all, and their contacts generally are other students.”
Additionally, students should not be afraid of repercussions if they contact Schiffert Health Center to be tested for COVID-19, Sands said.
“If you test positive, you’re not going to be investigated for how you acquired that disease, other than what is necessary from the public health perspective,” he said. “Student conduct does not go back and look and then, hold people accountable for past behaviors.”
Virginia Tech’s new COVID-19 dashboard to be updated daily
The university plans to begin updating its online dashboard daily and post a seven-day moving average so that users can track positivity rate and compare the number of new cases daily and weekly, Sands said. The dashboard launched on Aug. 19 and currently is updated weekly. All students living on campus were tested during the move-in process, and those who tested positive for COVID-19 were required to isolate.
“That gave us confidence that the students moving onto campus started with a new slate,” Sands said. “A one-day test doesn't have lasting meaning. It’s just a snapshot. It shows us that our incoming students were listening to the messages about quarantining before they came, about watching for symptoms and being careful, and that makes us feel quite good.”
The university now is shifting its testing profile to prioritize those who are symptomatic and have a high contact role.
Virginia Tech also launched a COVID-19 helpline to help the university community get information and answers related to its response to the pandemic.
Will Virginia Tech switch to online-only courses?
There are no plans currently for Virginia Tech classes to switch to an all-online format, Sands said. The university continually watches certain indicators, such as whether the coronavirus is spreading into the community, the amount of quarantine and isolation space on campus, and local hospitalization numbers tied to Virginia Tech.
“It’s a complex decision, and we track all of these metrics,” Sands said. “We look at them everyday, and make a decision about whether we are in a good place or not. Right now, we are on track and we will stay on that track until we have information that suggests we need to change.”
Before the semester began, faculty and instructors could choose if their courses would be held online, in-person, or as a mix of the two modes. This fall, about 7 percent of the university’s courses are held in-person, about 30 percent are both in-person and online, and the remainder (a majority) are virtual, Sands said.
Also, of the approximately 37,000 Virginia Tech students, about 11,000 are attending classes virtually this semester. Offering flexible course options for students is paramount, he said.
“Going online is helpful in some respects, but it isn't the solution [at Virginia Tech] because you're in a situation where most of the students are still in town,” Sands said. “It may be a good decision in some cases. In other cases, it may not have much effect on the course of the pandemic.”
No fall tailgating
The decision to prohibit tailgating for the fall was not easy. But Sands and Hager-Smith stressed that it was a joint decision to protect the community. Both the Town of Blacksburg and Virginia Tech police will be enforcing the no-tailgating rule.
“Fall football tailgating is part of what it means to be at a college campus,” Sands said. “The town depends on football to a large extent, but the tailgating was just a step too far. This is not the year that gathering and tailgating makes sense.”
Sands addressed the idea that many still will gather to watch football games on television, recently coined homegating.
“I know a lot of people will move inside, and that's fine, but stay with your pods. Stay with your family group, don't broaden it.” he said. ”It’s really important that we stick to this to avoid the spread of the disease further.”
New Blacksburg programs involving Hokies
Staffed by Virginia Tech students who are studying public health, the Town of Blacksburg has created a student ambassador program, said Hager-Smith. Students will go into the community, passing out masks, sharing advice, and advocating for good health practices.
Also, through a new Blacksburg Delivers initiative, Blacksburg restaurants will offer food service on campus twice a day at Derring Hall and Litton-Reaves Hall. The program begins after Labor Day, said Hager-Smith.
More information on the university’s response to COVID-19 can be found at vt.edu/ready.
By Jenny Kincaid Boone