‘Public health service’: Pitt students, staff talk COVID-19 vaccines

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Though Chancellor Patrick Gallagher did not announce a vaccine “mandate” in a letter addressed to Pitt community members on July 23, he said Pitt is “not neutral” towards receiving the vaccine.

By Clare Sheedy, Staff Writer

Sofia Cadahia received Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine in March and won $100 in Panther Funds through Pitt’s vaccine incentive raffle. She said she wishes people understood the importance of getting the vaccine.

“I can’t control what others do,” Cadahia, a senior majoring in nutrition and dietetics, said. “I wish that more people would acknowledge the impact of their actions and take this step to protect their community.”

In a July letter to Pitt community members, Chancellor Patrick Gallagher announced Pitt’s fall 2021 plans. Though he did not announce a vaccine “mandate,” Gallagher said Pitt is “not neutral” toward students, faculty and staff receiving the vaccine. 

“Everyone who can get vaccinated should be vaccinated — and our objective is to achieve very high immunization rates on our campuses,” Gallagher said.

As the fall semester approaches, students and University leaders discussed their thoughts on Pitt’s vaccine stance.

The COVID-19 Delta variant is nearly twice as contagious as previous variants, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, a non-profit which compiles health policy information, so-called “breakthrough” infections among people who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 are extremely rare. Based on state data analyzed by KFF, the breakthrough case rate is well below 1%, hospitalization rate ranged from effectively zero to 1% and the death rate was effectively zero.

Pitt spokesperson David Seldin said although Pitt isn’t mandating the vaccine, its policies for unvaccinated students are similar to other universities that are requiring it, such as neighboring Carnegie Mellon and Chatham universities.

“Mandates are difficult to enforce,” Seldin said. “In fact, most institutions which say they have a mandate are not barring individuals from campuses, but rather have separate requirements for unvaccinated individuals. Pitt’s approach is in line with this.”

Dr. John Williams, director of the COVID-19 Medical Response Office and chief of the medical school’s division of pediatric infectious diseases, said he along with the rest of the CMRO team acts as “kind of a public health department for the University.” Willams said vaccination is a public health service and critical in stopping the spread of the virus.

“Many of our peers, even here in town, are doing weekly testing of the unvaccinated,” Williams said. “Unvaccinated people are far more likely to become infected and spread the virus, so it’s truly a public health service to our fellow citizens, family, friends and loved ones to get vaccinated.”

According to Gallagher, students are required to comply with different parts of Pitt’s virus control program depending on their vaccinated status. Unvaccinated students are subject to mandatory virus testing, contact tracing, as well as quarantine and isolation. They also must get a negative COVID-19 test result before moving into on-campus housing and wear masks outdoors. All students must wear masks indoors and are encouraged to voluntarily disclose their vaccination status by uploading an image of their vaccination card through the Student Health Services portal.

Isabella Wegner, a junior French and ecology and evolution major, said she likes Pitt’s decision to assume each student is unvaccinated unless proven otherwise because it respects students’ privacy.

“I really like the way that they are treating everyone as unvaccinated unless you choose to disclose your status, so it doesn’t feel like you’re being forced or there’s an invasion of privacy,” Wegner said. “It’s really your choice and you either have to go through the inconvenience of testing or you can disclose your status and get a vaccination.”

As a student leader for Days for Girls — a student organization that works a non-profit to provide sustainable feminine hygiene solutions to girls and women in developing countries — Wegner said she plans on hosting in-person meetings soon. The latest guidance from the Student Organization Resource Center permits organizations to hold in-person events without registering with Pitt ahead of time.

Wegner said although she was confused by the lack of University communication at first, she is now happy with Pitt’s guidelines for student organizations.

“I was pretty confused for a while, but now I am feeling pretty good. It will be a weird and slightly challenging transition back into being in person for meetings,” Wegner said. “I like the plan they have in place. Virtual meetings are convenient, so we plan on having our first meeting online. But, hopefully by our second or third meeting we will be in person!”

For Cadahia — whose family in Spain had to wait longer to receive a vaccine — getting vaccinated was an “easy” decision and process, as was disclosing her vaccination status and entering Pitt’s raffle.

“I found the whole process to be easy,” Cadahia said. “I grew up in Madrid, Spain, and many of my friends and family members have been waiting desperately for their turn to get vaccinated. I was lucky enough to have the chance to get vaccinated much earlier than many of my loved ones and was not going to take that chance for granted.” 

While Cadahia said she agrees with Pitt’s recommendation to get vaccinated, she believes implementing a mandate would be smartest.

“I feel that mandating the COVID vaccine for all students and staff is the best approach to controlling the spread of the virus on campus,” Cadahia said. “While I believe that strongly encouraging the vaccine is a great message to send students, mandating the vaccine sends a stronger message and ensures even greater chances of returning to normalcy on campus.”

Seldin said the University’s CoVax Vaccination Center — which puts shots in arms in Nordenberg Hall — plans to not only vaccinate Pitt community members, but educate and facilitate conversations as well. 

“The Vaccination Center is also providing training to student groups and resident assistants on how to facilitate conversations about vaccinations,” Seldin said. “In addition to these efforts, the University is promoting vaccinations through digital, video and print campaigns.” 

When asked about Pitt’s lack of a vaccination mandate, Robin Kear, liaison librarian and newly elected University Senate president, said she “felt good” to see the virus control program for the academic year.

“However, I know there is still, of course, concern about the new information about Delta.” Kear said. “I’ve heard from quite a few faculty this week wondering if that changes anything. So, I think there’s still a lot of concern about what the classroom is going to look like on August 27th.” 

Both Pitt’s Faculty Assembly and Senate Council voted in favor of a vaccine mandate in May — with 90% of the Faculty Assembly and 79% of the Senate Council in support. Pitt’s Student Government Board also agreed with the mandate.

“I am in close discussions with the administration with what that return to the classroom looks like,” Kear said. “The faculty wants to see the students as much as the students want to be in the classroom. That’s the goal and hopefully we’ll be able to do that safely this Fall, but I think we still have to be adaptive and resilient to what is coming our way with these variants.” 

Williams said the CMRO will adjust policies, such as masking indoors, if the “ever-evolving” situation necessitates it and in accordance with federal public health guidance. Despite the Delta variant, Williams feels optimistic about the fall semester, given the cooperativeness of community members last semester.

“I’m excited and optimistic. Last year, Pitt had an excellent year despite the pandemic and really without vaccines for most of the year — primarily due to the students doing all the right things,” Williams said. “I have faith that the Pitt community will pull together and do what we need to ensure another safe, successful year. The availability of safe, effective vaccines and the power of masks to reduce spread give us the tools we need to achieve this goal.”

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