With graduations completed, Virginia Tech officials are placing a renewed emphasis on efforts to encourage students, faculty, and staff members to receive the COVID-19 vaccine as part of their ongoing preparations for a fully in-person fall semester.

The results so far have been encouraging. A university-wide survey conducted in late April through May 14 asked both students and employees if they had received at least one vaccine dose or planned to make arrangements to get a vaccine shot. Among employees, more than 6,600 responded to the overall survey. Close to 90 percent of those participants (5,961) responded that they had received at least one vaccine dose.

Among students, 21,346 responded to the survey question on whether they had received the vaccine. Of that number, 76 percent (16,366) stated that they had received at least one dose.

University officials hope that guidance from the Virginia Department of Health will prompt even more to receive the vaccine. The health department states on its website that fully vaccinated people can “resume activities without wearing a mask or staying six feet apart, except where required by federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws, rules, and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance.”

Late in the afternoon on May 14, based on the recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Virginia Governor Ralph Northam amended Executive Order 72 lifting the universal indoor masking update effective May 15 and announced further changes that will go into effect on May 28. The CDC guidelines state that fully vaccinated individuals do not have to wear masks in most indoor settings, except on public transit, in health care facilities, and in congregate settings. Virginia Tech is evaluating how these changes will apply to campus operations.

The New River Valley Health District will be holding another large-scale vaccination clinic Tuesday at Lane Stadium. This clinic represents the final large clinic, as health district officials transition to smaller clinics and vaccinations at local events, with additional focus on educational outreach. Approximately 32 percent of the people in Montgomery County have been vaccinated, according to New River Valley Health District data released May 12.

“At this point, the science is clear. Fully vaccinated individuals are protected, and can really resume their normal activities.” said Noelle Bissell, health director for the New River Health District. “The vaccines are working in real-world settings. We have enough supply of the vaccine in our area and anyone over age 12 who wants a vaccine can get it.”

Students still in the Blacksburg/Roanoke area can get a first dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine at the May 18 clinic and then receive the second dose when they return to their primary residence. Those eligible for their second dose can also attend the vaccination clinic.

University leaders have emphasized that vaccinations are the number-one actions community members can take to help Virginia Tech return to pre-pandemic operations. That includes a return to the classroom setting, open dining and residence halls, and the ability to gather for popular on-campus events such as football games and other social functions.

“Everyone is encouraged to get vaccinated,” said Mike Mulhare, assistant vice president for emergency management “because of the known benefits. It protects you, it protects others, and  it lets us begin to return to normal. We hope everyone takes advantage of this important tool to  be safe and end the pandemic. Vaccination is safe, available, and free. If you’re unvaccinated and choose not to wear a mask, you are putting yourself and others at risk.”

At this time CDC and VDH guidance state that if you are unvaccinated you need to wear your mask. The university encourages anyone who is not vaccinated to continue masking to protect themselves and others who may not have had an opportunity yet to be vaccinated.

As the university continues to manage COVID-19 and other contagious viruses, it is expected that it will be a normal practice for some to continue to prefer to wear a mask, while others will not. Individuals will make personal risk assessments for themselves and also follow public health guidance for the safety of themselves and others. The university supports the personal choice of those who choose to continue to wear a mask now or seasonally.

On March 18, the university announced plans to return to a full, in-person student education experience and noted that course requests included a classroom location, with hopes that physical distancing requirements will support a normal fall semester. All current indicators are trending in this direction. To continue that trend, university officials stress the need for vaccinations to bring the Virginia Tech community to “herd” immunity.

“My hope and expectation is that the fall semester experience will be much like the pre-pandemic experience, with enhancements based on what we have learned through the course of the pandemic,” Virginia Tech President Tim Sands said in a March 18 release. “We will continue to base our planning on the latest public health guidance and trends informed by still emerging data and science. As we have throughout the pandemic, we will build flexibility into our plans and communicate any updates to our plans in a timely and transparent manner. I am more confident than ever that we will have a robust campus experience this fall.”

University officials also paused the updating of the COVID-19 dashboard this past weekend. There has been consistent reduction of positive cases on campus. The need to test has decreased significantly with the semester coming to a conclusion. The university will continue to collect data and will leave open the possibility of relaunching the dashboard at any point going forward.

Virginia Tech continues to work with the New River Health District and other community partners as the data, science and public health guidance related to the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rapidly evolve.

“We have developed and followed sound strategies for mitigating the health risks for more than a calendar year,” Mulhare said. “Our collective commitment to following these guidelines has helped to flatten the curve of cases, while allowing us to continue fulfilling our institutional mission. While we anticipate wider access to vaccinations and improving conditions as the fall semester approaches, we will not hesitate to adjust our plans accordingly to lower the health risks.”

Virginia Tech is scheduled to begin classes this fall on Aug. 23. Future announcements will be shared through upcoming campus notices in the daily email and online. 

— Written by Jimmy Robertson

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