Virginia Tech President Tim Sands, several university administrators, and Noelle Bissell, director of the New River Health District, participated in a town hall Tuesday afternoon at the Moss Arts Center that focused on the university’s plans for the fall semester.

University officials announced in March that Virginia Tech was preparing for a full, in-person fall semester, and the spring course request process took place with that in mind. The university administration also announced plans to operate its housing and dining operations close to normal capacity, but intends to continue to reserve isolation and quarantine space in residence halls for students who need that space as directed by a medical professional.

Tuesday’s town hall touched on numerous topics, including the importance of COVID-19 vaccinations, the need to evolve as conditions change, and the reasons behind some of the administration’s recent decisions.

Here are some highlights from the town hall:

Decision behind the mandating of the vaccine for students

Last week, Virginia Tech officials announced the decision to require vaccinations for all students attending the university this fall. Only students with certain medical issues and those with sincerely held religious beliefs are exempt from this requirement.

The decision falls in line with that of other major institutions within Virginia. The University of Virginia, James Madison University, and Virginia Commonwealth University all have implemented the same mandate for its students.

University officials believe that an in-person experience hinges on vaccinations. They also say other benefits include a reduced need for testing and quarantining, fewer disruptions to campus operations, and an increased ability to hold more in-person activities on campus – such as football games.

Sands applauded students, faculty, and those in the community for following protocols over the course of this past academic year to allow Virginia Tech to be in a position to return fully in person for the fall semester. But he believes one more step is needed to secure this possibility.

“We have a new tool, and that’s vaccination,” Sands said. “That tool is very effective, and what it allows us to contemplate and to plan for is a fully in person fall experience. So, back to 66,000 at Lane Stadium, to full occupancy of our classrooms and laboratories, to using the dining halls, to full occupancy of the residence halls. This is really something we’ve been craving for months, and we now have the opportunity to have that.

“So, we’re encouraging everyone to be vaccinated who can be vaccinated. The result of that is protecting your own health and protecting the community. … If we can get almost everyone who can be vaccinated to be vaccinated, we will be able to open up full bore for the fall, and that’s the goal. We really needed to come back. We know that the educational experience is dependent on having the option to come back more in person. Everything that we think about when we think of the Virginia Tech experience requires the ability to come in person, and we have that ability now.”

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Aug. 6 the key date for students

Sands and others on the panel continuously brought up the Aug. 6 deadline for students to upload a copy of their vaccination card to the Online Student Health Portal. Frank Shushok Jr., vice president for student affairs, reported that 5,400 students already had done so by the time of the town hall.

He also reiterated the consequences of missing that deadline.

“It’s important that students know that you have to have an exemption or be vaccinated in order to return to campus,” Shushok said. “If you don’t have an exemption or aren’t working with us, or you haven’t been vaccinated, you won’t be able to move into the residence halls, and you’ll be dropped from your classes before the school year starts.

“So, it’s incredibly important that people pay attention to that Aug. 6 date, so that they can turn in their exemption form and receive an exemption, or turn in their vaccination records.”

Employees need to notify the university of their vaccination status by Aug. 15.

Reversing course with the student mandate

Earlier this year, the university shared that it would not be able to mandate the vaccine. However, circumstances changed, and Sands addressed those during the town hall.

“We actually have a lot more data and a lot more understanding of COVID and also the regulatory environment that we’re in than we did when we were hypothesizing back then that we would not be doing that [mandating the vaccine] until we got full FDA approval for one of the vaccines,” Sands said. “We’ve gotten to the point now with an opinion by the Attorney General of Virginia [Mark Herring] that is allowing us to go ahead and mandate it and also looking at the data. I think we’re looking at 170 million people in the U.S. who have been vaccinated. You can just see that we’re moving in the direction now that the vaccines can be proven safe.

“The other factor is waiting for FDA approval – which I think is going to come, but I’m not an expert in it. If we waited that long, we would not be able to start the semester in person. It’s a difficult decision, but we had to make that call.”

Addressing the latest with myocarditis

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called an emergency meeting for this week after a small group of people under the age of 30 (226 according to WebMD) were diagnosed with myocarditis after being vaccinated. Myocarditis is an inflammation and swelling of the heart muscle, and the CDC wants to study any potential link between the vaccines and myocarditis. However, many doctors consider the inflammation a rare side effect easily treatable with anti-inflammatory medications.

“Correlation is not causation,” Bissell said. “There is much we still need to learn, as we live it real time, and the CDC, pediatric infectious disease experts, and pediatric cardiologists continue to recommend that the vaccine be administered to those who it’s approved for – those 12 and up. They feel that the risk of the vaccine is much, much lower than the risk of COVID.”

The news of the meeting and the cases came after Virginia Tech’s decision to mandate vaccines for students. That decision will remain in place, but university officials plan on remaining flexible in the event circumstances change.

Frank Shushok Jr., Vice President for Student Affairs, addresses a question from moderator Dawn Jefferies during a virtual town hall Tuesday at the Moss Arts Center. At left is Dr. Noelle Bissell, Director of the New River Health District and at right is Mike Mulhare, Assistant Vice President for Emergency Management.
Frank Shushok Jr., vice president for student affairs, speaks at the town hall. Pictured with Shushok are Noelle Bissell (left) and Mike Mulhare, assistant vice president for emergency management. Photo by Ray Meese for Virginia Tech

Decision behind not mandating vaccinations for employees

Virginia Tech officials did not mandate vaccinations for employees, though they strongly encourage employees to get the vaccine. Part of their decision centered on the numbers, as a campus-wide survey conducted two months ago revealed that nearly 90 percent of the university’s employees who responded already had been vaccinated or in the process of being vaccinated.

This response and the low prevalence of infection for employees in high-contact roles throughout the most recent semester give university officials confidence that the risk to and from employees is relatively low and manageable if nearly everyone is vaccinated.

“Our experience over the last year was that it [COVID] did not propagate among our employees at the level that it did with our students, so we thought that we could do well there,” Sands said. “Ninety percent is pretty good if that’s where we’re really starting – and we don’t know that for sure because there are always those who don’t respond, and we don’t know what their answer is going to be to that question. But we feel pretty good about the employees.”

There was one other complicating factor when it came to mandating the vaccine for employees.

“We do not think we have the ability from a legal point of view to require the vaccinations for the employees, especially for a sub-population of classified staff who are protected by a different set of rules and regulations,” Sands said. “We didn’t feel we could have one group among the employees have a mandate and the others not.

“So, we’re going to manage it, and if we have to change the direction based on the responses we get from the vaccination entries that we’re asking people to submit, then we will change. But we think we have a manageable situation going in.”

Addressing concerns with the vaccine

Many people opting not to get the vaccine cite the vaccine’s lack of full approval from the Food and Drug Administration as a reason why. The FDA approved the Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson vaccines using an emergency use authorization, determining that the benefits outweighed the risks.

Also, many believe that the vaccine was rushed into production, and others cite possible health risks. But most of these particular myths are falsehoods.

The method for the creation of the vaccine actually started years ago, so companies were able to move quickly on the COVID-19 vaccine early in the pandemic. Companies also conducted some of the steps for producing the vaccine on an overlapping schedule to collect data faster. Social media helped researchers to find qualified volunteers, and the speed with which COVID-19 spread allowed researchers to see quickly if their respective vaccines worked.

As for oft-cited health issues, there is no evidence that the vaccine causes any problems with pregnancies. There is also no evidence that fertility problems are a side effect of the vaccine. Vaccines also do not alter one’s DNA because the vaccine never enters one’s cells, which stores DNA.

“When we talk about the vaccines, they are very, very safe,” Bissell said, adding that vaccines save more than 8 million lives every year. “Nothing was cut in the safety profiles, the clinical trials, when they did the vaccine. Nothing is totally risk free. You can’t say that doing anything, including taking a vaccine, is risk free. However, you have to look at the risk of the vaccine versus the risk of not getting the vaccine and the risk of COVID. The CDC and the FDA are doing all of the appropriate things when it comes to vaccine safety.”

More testing to take place

Mask and physical distance requirements remain in effect at Virginia Tech for those who are exempt from the vaccine because of health and/or religious reasons. Masks need to be worn indoors, and students need to follow distancing protocols.

Also, this group of students will be in Virginia Tech’s testing program. In addition, employees need to notify the university of their vaccination status, and those who haven’t been vaccinated will be subject to testing.

Mike Mulhare, assistant vice president for emergency management, expects the university to perform even more testing this upcoming semester.

“We’re finalizing the testing program now for students and employees,” Mulhare said. “We’re looking at a very rigorous testing program for those groups. At a minimum, we’re looking at perhaps weekly testing.

“We’re going to do whatever it takes to ensure that we have an environment that allows us to function in the fall. That will be out shortly. We’ll have a rigorous testing program that will allow us to operate the way we want to this upcoming semester.”

Written by Jimmy Robertson


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