‘Cautiously optimistic’: Pitt officials address the state of COVID-19 on campus

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Dr. John Williams, Pitt’s COVID-19 chief, said the University is “off to a great start” this semester in handling the pandemic.

By Rebecca Johnson, News Editor

While Allegheny County has continued to report high but falling COVID-19 case numbers, Dr. John Williams said Pitt is “off to a great start” this semester in handling the pandemic.

He said the University’s relatively low case count from surveillance testing combined with a low positive test rate from at-home Quest coronavirus tests demonstrate that students have followed mitigation rules well. Out of 256 students without COVID-19 symptoms randomly tested last Wednesday, two were positive, increasing Pitt’s prevalence rate from 0.20% to 0.29%.

“Our students really listened to us when we asked them to do shelter in place at home and here,” Williams said. “We’re cautiously optimistic because the students are really experienced now, they know what to do, they know how to handle it and if we get surges we know what we need to do to respond.”

Williams discussed the state of COVID-19 on campus at Wednesday afternoon’s Senate Council meeting. Williams and other officials addressed Pitt’s vaccine distribution plan as well as the University’s uncertain budget outlook at the meeting.

Williams said one of the largest changes students can expect to see is in-person dining starting to re-open — with masks and social distancing. When the shelter-in-place period ended on Tuesday morning, Pitt shifted back to the Elevated Risk posture. In this posture, activities such as dining in person, going to recreational facilities and attending in-person gatherings with a capacity of 25 people are permitted. Additionally, more in-person classes will be permitted to meet — excluding large lectures — and more common places around campus will be open.

There is a slight increased risk if you allow in-person dining, even if it’s distanced and masked,” Williams said. “If people — because not everybody follows the rules all the time — if people distance and mask appropriately the risk is minimal.”

Eric Macadangdang, the president of Student Government Board, said community members have expressed concern that Oakland restaurants are not complying with COVID-19 mitigation rules. He then asked what steps the University was taking to address this issue. Restaurants in Pennsylvania currently have limits on dining capacity and on-site alcohol consumption is banned unless it’s part of a meal.

Williams said from Pitt’s standpoint, the COVID-19 Medical Response Office weighed the potential consequences for re-opening dining and decided it was worth it to improve students’ “quality of life.”

“On the student life side, look it’s been a long year, this is the toughest semester … we really want to try and enhance the student college experience and think about wellness as much as we can,” Williams said. “Feeling better about our ability to control virus than we did in the fall because we have experience and weighing more on the balance of quality of life versus locked down in a dorm, that’s where we came from on the CMRO.”

Williams also said that since the University started planning for the pandemic last summer they were in touch with the Oakland Business Improvement District, which he said “partnered nicely with the University.”

Chancellor Patrick Gallagher agreed that Pitt has worked well with Oakland businesses to keep students safe. He said if needed, Pitt can release advisories about non-compliant businesses, which it did early in the pandemic.

“These businesses want our business, and generally if we approach them in the experience of ‘Look, even your customers are raising concerns about how you’re operating, that’s going to be an impediment,” they tended to be responsive,” Gallagher said.

Gallager said the “primary” risk for COVID-19 transmission is parties and other “social, high-density gatherings” rather than dining. He said in regards to risk postures, that if something is “breaking” Pitt can “re-restrict.”

Williams added that though the University underwent a couple of surges in case numbers last semester, and he is confident students can keep case numbers low.

“We have data — a whole semester’s data — to say Pitt students and the Pitt community are actually quite good, better than many other universities at doing what they should. Are they perfect? No, nobody is. But they’ve really done very well,” Williams said. “We’ve weathered a couple of surges last term and between the response of student life, residence life, the CMRO, the students themselves, everybody, we got those back under control.”

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