Virginia Tech and community leaders discuss vaccine progress, pandemic response
Virginia Tech students are back in town, with required COVID-19 testing for on-campus students and other public health guidelines in place.
The coronavirus vaccine is rolling out to more people in the New River Health District.
The needs are numerous for volunteers to serve the community in the new year.
Alongside these messages, Virginia Tech and Blacksburg leaders emphasized patience, vigilance, and hope in the midst of the pandemic during a virtual community conversation event last Friday.
“We are looking for any opportunity to bring normalcy back to the experience on campus, but we want to do so cautiously,” said Virginia Tech President Tim Sands during the Jan. 15 evening event broadcast live via the university’s website and on YouTube. “We want to move into the spring with optimism but with vigilance. I feel more and more confident as we go through that we will see the end of this in the next several months.”
Sands was joined by Noelle Bissell, health director of the New River Health District; Anthony Wilson, chief of Blacksburg Police; and Mike Mulhare, assistant vice president for emergency management at Virginia Tech.
The following are highlights from the conversation.
Virginia Tech students start the semester virtually
Spring semester classes begin on Jan. 19 for Virginia Tech students, but all courses will be held virtually until Jan. 25, after which some in-person and hybrid components will be incorporated.
The university asked all students to quarantine for 10 days before returning to Blacksburg, and students living on campus are required to be tested for COVID-19 upon arrival.
Sands said Virginia Tech is relying on lessons learned from the fall semester, when it was able to keep COVID-19 positivity rates in the 1 to 2 percent range on campus
“We are optimistic that our students are well practiced,” he said.
Also, academic results from the fall semester show that students remained on track with grades and general performance.
“Despite all of the challenges, our students and our faculty and staff really did pull through,” Sands said.
Vaccine available to priority groups as quickly as health district can get supplies
The New River Health District is receiving supplies of the Moderna vaccine and vaccinating people who fall in phases 1a and 1b, as defined by the Virginia Department of Health. These groups include health care workers, people ages 75 and older, and those who work in essential occupations that interact directly with the public, such as K-12 teachers and school personnel, and police, fire, and emergency services providers.
Governor Ralph Northam recently announced that people ages 65 and older and those younger than 65 with high-risk medical conditions can be vaccinated with the phase 1b group as well.
Bissell said the health district is working as fast as it can to get vaccine doses to people in all of these groups, and it is partnering with some local pharmacies to administer vaccines. But it will take time to get vaccines to everyone. To pre-register for a vaccine in one of these phases, people should visit https://www.nrvroadtowellness.com/.
The district aims to vaccinate at least 1,000 people a day, but it does not always know how much vaccine it will receive each week from the Virginia Department of Health.
“It’s a logistics and a balancing act trying to get as much vaccine out to people as safely as we can,” Bissell said. “We are not letting it sit on the shelf in the New River Health District.”
Also, at this time, there may not be enough vaccine for every person to receive a second dose on schedule, which for the Moderna vaccine is given about 28 days after the first dose, she said.
“If I did every second dose on schedule, that would cut the number of new doses I am doing in half,” Bissell said.
Even so, the first dose of the vaccine does offer a short-term immunity for COVID-19, while the second dose is for longer term immunity, she explained.
Bissell anticipates that the vaccine may be available to the wider community by the spring or summer. Also, there are new vaccine versions nearing approval, she said.
Some Virginia Tech employees who fall in phase 1b are receiving the vaccine, and the university is able to help register people for vaccination appointments, said Mulhare. It’s also working with health districts in other areas where employees may live to ensure that they, too, receive the vaccine.
Bissell reminded people that there is a 5 percent chance that those who receive the coronavirus vaccine still could contract the virus. That’s why everyone should continue to follow public health guidelines, including wearing face coverings in public and regular hand washing.
“We still need everyone to behave as if everyone is susceptible, and we all take those precautions until we are a little bit ahead in getting vaccinated,” she said.
The health district monitors hospitalizations and deaths in the region to discern vaccine progress.
“We do expect we will start to see those decline as we are vaccinating our highest risk populations,” Bissell said.
New COVID-19 support efforts for Virginia Tech students and employees
Virginia Tech has ramped up its case management work to support students and employees who have COVID-19 or who were exposed to someone with the virus, Mulhare said. The university has added more people to its case management team, and it also launched a specific student advocate team.
Additionally, there is a new assistants team to support students living in quarantine and isolation space on campus. This team checks in on students regularly. Also, there are new dining options for these students and a new outdoor courtyard for them to enjoy fresh air while in quarantine or isolation.
“Our intent is to make the best of what might be a difficult situation for those students,” Mulhare said.
As the Virginia Tech community looks to be involved as volunteers in local COVID-19 mitigation and support efforts, the opportunities are numerous, Wilson said. There are groups like the COVID Companions, for which students help elderly adults navigate telehealth and other technology needs and communicate with those who are isolated.
Wilson also praised the COVID Crushers, a group of Virginia Tech students studying public health who handed out masks and health information in downtown Blacksburg last semester.
The Medical Reserve Corps is another group that includes people throughout the community, such as Virginia Tech students and faculty, who volunteer with the health district at COVID-19 testing sites and at vaccination clinics. The corps has been integral to the district during the pandemic, Bissell said.
Wilson said he is pleased that so many Virginia Tech students followed public health guidelines and helped out diligently in the community last semester. He’s looking forward to working with them this year.
“Our students will be one of our biggest cogs in our wheel,” he said. “This is an all-hands-on-deck kind of situation. I would love to see us use the challenge of the pandemic to be the catalyst to bring this community together.”
By Jenny Kincaid Boone