‘We have to be agile’’: Senate Council discusses COVID-19 guidelines, faculty union vote

Chancellor+Patrick+Gallagher+said+at+Wednesday%E2%80%99s+Senate+Council+meeting+that+unvaccinated+students+will+be+required+to+take+weekly+COVID+tests%2C+and+a+positive+test+will+result+in+the+inability+to+access+campus+buildings.

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Chancellor Patrick Gallagher said at Wednesday’s Senate Council meeting that unvaccinated students will be required to take weekly COVID tests, and a positive test will result in the inability to access campus buildings.

By Millicent Watt, Assistant News Editor

Chancellor Patrick Gallagher said Pitt’s new COVID-19 testing program for the academic year is estimated to cost between $20 and $50 million in order to test unvaccinated students weekly, starting on Monday.

“By testing every unvaccinated individual every week, it’s almost an order of magnitude more testing than we’ve done before,” Gallagher said. “And that’s great, that’s protective, but these tests … these are free to individuals, but they’re not free overall. The University is looking at the cost of operating a testing program of that scale — it’s not insignificant — current estimates are between $20 and $50 million for the year.”

Gallagher met with University leaders at Thursday’s Senate Council meeting to outline and answer questions about Pitt’s COVID-19 guidelines for fully in-person instruction starting on Monday. Provost Ann Cudd announced on Aug. 20 that the first two weeks of fall classes would have a remote option for both students and teachers.

Gallagher said unvaccinated students will be required to take weekly COVID-19 tests so  positive COVID-19 cases can be “quickly detected.” Students who test positive will not be allowed to enter University buildings, so as not to put others at risk for infection, Gallagher said.

He added that Pitt developed this approach for safety, not coercion. 

“We tried to take our approach on what is protective of health, not what is coercive to getting the vaccine,” Gallagher said. “So while it may be coercive that you have to get tested every week, the design was actually about health — we want to detect COVID-positive folks.”

Students subject to regular testing will receive a testing kit in the mail, and mail the test back once self-administered. Although only a week in, Gallagher said the test return rate is below 10% for unvaccinated students, so Pitt’s goal is to make it “as easy as possible” to get tested.

According to an email sent by the COVID-19 Medical Response Office, 89% of undergraduate students on the Oakland campus have uploaded proof of vaccination against COVID-19. The report also stated that 96% of undergraduates living on campus and 84% of those living off campus submitted proof of vaccination. The office added that 78% of faculty, 81% of staff and  94% of instructors who are scheduled to teach in person have uploaded proof of vaccination.

Robin Kear, the president of Senate Council, encouraged faculty members to upload proof of vaccination due to the many questions brought up during last week’s Faculty Assembly meeting.

“There were many questions last week and discussions on specifics for facilities and physical classrooms,” Kear said. “Faculty, we have the lowest response rate to the vaccination requests for disclosure, so I would encourage all faculty to take a moment and upload your vaccination card so that you have seamless building access come Monday.”

Because vaccinations are not completely effective against COVID-19 and its variants, a meeting attendee asked about mandatory testing for vaccinated students. Gallagher said while Pitt could regularly test all students, it is more cost effective to just regularly test unvaccinated students, who are at higher risks of infection.

“The consensus of our medical team right now is that it’s kind of a risk-adjusted approach that, you know, just the resource, the bang-for-the-buck if you will, on testing the unvaccinated population is so much higher in terms of detecting what’s likely the much more common occurrence for that population, namely being COVID positive,” Gallagher said.

Gallagher also said the combination of regularly testing unvaccinated students, as well as sample testing, randomized sample testing and symptomatic testing of all students, covers the breakthrough risk.

Gallagher also addressed the federal government’s vaccine requirement for its employees, and said Pitt has “taken nothing off the table” in regards to health guidelines. President Joe Biden announced Thursday he is mandating COVID-19 vaccinations for more than 100 million Americans, including certain private sector employees, health care workers and a large portion of federal workers.

“We have a requirement right now that is based on what we believe to be protective when we put the plans together for the fall,” Gallagher said. “They’re pretty aggressive as I just talked about — you’re not getting into a building unless you’re vaccinated or have a recent COVID negative test.”

Due to the high cost of testing, Gallagher said he is working with Senate leadership to possibly attach a vaccine requirement to enrollment or employment eligibility, but doesn’t want to state anything until details are finalized.

“I’m not opposed to these but what I am opposed to is stating there’s a requirement without being able to explain what that means to people,” Gallagher said. “We are talking about people’s jobs, we’re talking about people’s education. I think we have a responsibility to get the details right and that’s something that I think we should work together [on] in a shared governance way.”

Kear said the Assembly was in favor of a vaccine requirement.

“At Faculty Assembly last week, there was still consensus for moving towards a vaccine requirement, and we’re happy to work with shared governance towards that,” Kear said.

Gallagher said he is “quite confident” that campus environments such as classrooms, residence halls and communal spaces will continue to be very low-risk for transmission due to Pitt’s infection control program and other mitigation efforts, such as wearing masks. According to Gallagher, while in the past, off-campus activities were a significant cause of increased COVID-19 transmission, all students will have to take on the responsibility of remaining safe and following health guidelines.

“We’re going to be affected by what’s happening around us, and what people are doing when they’re not in the classroom or in the residence hall, and everyone will have to take on that responsibility,” Gallagher said.

Kear also addressed the ongoing faculty unionization election, encouraging faculty members to vote, if able. 

“There is a very important vote on union representation going on right now for approximately 3,000 faculty members, a large portion of our 5,200 members,” Kear said. “If you are part of this voting, please do so. It’s very important that we all vote because we will all be affected.”

Kear added that the Faculty Assembly will remain neutral, regardless of outcome.

“Whatever the outcome is, as we are elected to represent all faculty, the officers and I want the Faculty Assembly and Senate Council to take a neutral position, remain neutral on whether those eligible should vote yes or no,” Kear said. “We will not be an obstacle or advocate for either position.”

Gallagher said he expects the fall semester to “unfold as we’ve laid it out,” and the spring safety plan will depend on progress made in the fall. Gallagher also said faculty, staff and students will have to continue to work together and adjust to the ongoing pandemic.

“It’s important to remember we would be in a much worse situation if it wasn’t for the effectiveness of these vaccines,” Gallagher said. “We will continue, as we all are, to sort of experience science being done live in front of us, with all the uncertainty being expressed every day, and we’re going to have to sort of continue to work together, learn what we can and to adjust on the fly, so I do think like last year, we have to be agile.”

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