From President Tim Sands: Expectations for the coming semester
Over the holidays, I shared an update to our strategy for managing COVID-19 this spring with the goal of continuing the in-person approach and experience that we enjoyed last fall. Today, I’d like to elaborate on what to expect and how our mindset about COVID-19 will evolve going forward.
Commitment to the in-person experience
The hallmark of a Virginia Tech education is shared in-person experiences, active engagement with instructors, collaboration among students, hands-on laboratories and fieldwork, and equitable access to technology and learning spaces. It will take time to learn how to best integrate online and hybrid instruction into the curriculum of the future. Consequently, it is important that we continue our commitment to in-person classes, events, and most activities as scheduled. We have not seen transmission in these settings. However, we will continue to monitor the situation and make decisions based on the latest data and science.
Expect the omicron variant to drive a COVID-19 surge in the early weeks of the semester
As expected, the omicron surge is now driving record levels of COVID-19 transmission in Montgomery County and across the region. Early on-campus testing in Blacksburg is yielding high levels of positivity, even before the majority of undergraduates return to campus and the community. Our modeling, and the recent experience of other universities, predicts an increase in positive cases throughout January and into early February.
With a 95 percent vaccination rate, required boosters for those eligible, entry and surveillance testing, masking in indoor spaces, and reduced isolation recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, we are in the best position possible to weather the surge. However, we should be realistic about the challenges ahead for every university no matter how well prepared. Don’t be caught off guard if campus services are modified or temporarily disrupted while employees are recovering in isolation. Please check the Ready site often for updates and keep an eye on your email.
Prepare for a shift to treating COVID-19 as an endemic disease
Although the omicron variant is much more infectious than previous variants, mounting evidence indicates that it is also less likely to result in serious disease or death, especially for those who are fully vaccinated and boosted.
In regions of the country where the omicron wave started earlier, hospitalization and death rates for those with COVID-19 have decreased compared to prior variants. From the beginning of the pandemic, we have based our approach to COVID-19 on reducing the impact to our health care system and protecting those in our communities who are most at risk. Should the omicron and subsequent variants continue to diminish in virulence, we will gradually transition toward operating under principles of individual responsibility. This means 1) self-isolating and wearing masks after testing positive or when exhibiting symptoms, and 2) choosing to wear high-quality, well-fitted masks in indoor public settings to reduce the risk of contracting COVID-19. The metrics that inform decisions will shift from numbers of positive tests and levels of community transmission to severity of illness, hospital admissions, and numbers of students and employees in isolation.
This transition to treating COVID-19 as an endemic disease will be welcomed by most, yet Virginia Tech’s policies and procedures must reflect the ongoing risk to the immunocompromised and children under 5 years of age, who are not yet eligible for a vaccine. Acknowledging the sobering truth that no one can accurately predict the virulence and infectiousness of future variants of SARS-CoV-2, we should be hopeful but remain vigilant and flexible.
We will keep you updated as we evolve our strategy and mindset to meet the state of the pandemic in the weeks ahead. Please watch our upcoming discussion with our campus leaders on Thursday, Jan. 20. I again want to thank you for your patience, understanding, and determination as we manage through a challenging situation that we all wish was well behind us. I’m excited to see you on campus soon and look forward to a safe, healthy, and productive semester ahead.
- Presidential Policy Memorandum No. 318
- From Bryan Garey: Help make spring semester successful and safe for our community
- From Frank Shushok Jr.: Caring for your community in a world with COVID-19