Pitt doubles down on mitigation efforts, vaccines as Omicron surges

A+Pitt+student+wears+a+mask.+

Joy Cao | Senior Staff Photographer

A Pitt student wears a mask.

By Abby Cardilli, Staff Writer

Despite other mitigation measures, University officials said COVID-19 vaccines, including a booster dose, are the key component of campus safety plans amid the pandemic.

“Getting vaccinated and boosted is the number one thing people can do to protect themselves and others,” a University spokesperson said.

According to the spokesperson, since the vaccination rate was high when the University initially implemented its mandate at the end of the fall semester, they “do not expect many differences” to mitigation strategies.

“Measures like universal masking, good hand hygiene and improvements to HVAC systems remain important tools,” the spokesperson said. “No additional changes are planned at this time, and there are no changes planned for the indoor mask requirement.”

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Pitt implemented various COVID-19 mitigation measures last semester, as classes returned in person for the first time in close to 18 months. Along with a mandatory mask policy in all University buildings, students and staff were also required to swipe their Panther card to enter. 

In order to access University buildings, unvaccinated students, faculty and staff had to test weekly, and those who were vaccinated needed proof of vaccination on file.

The COVID-19 situation has changed in the United States as the highly contagious Omicron variant is quickly spreading across the country. As of Tuesday, the Allegheny County Health Department reported a seven-day moving average of 3,198 infections and a 36.7% PCR test positivity rate.

With the variant’s rapid spread, the University spokesperson noted that the spring semester will begin “differently” than the fall.

In a Dec. 30 email, Pitt’s COVID-19 Medical Response Office released details regarding a University-wide shelter-in-place and phased arrival. University residence halls will begin to reopen on Jan. 8, with Pittsburgh students returning in a phased, cohort-based style. All students living in University housing will also be required to submit a COVID-19 test after their arrival. 

During the shelter-in-place, dining services are also grab-and-go, indoor campus recreation facilities are closed and no guests are allowed in the residence halls. Provost Ann Cudd said in a separate message that classes will switch to fully remote for the semester’s first two and a half weeks before returning to in-person instruction on Jan. 27.

Besides remote classes, the spring will be the first full semester with Pitt’s recently implemented COVID-19 vaccine mandate, which currently does not include a booster dose.

Under the mandate, students and employees have access to an exemption, if a religious, moral or medical reason is provided. According to the University spokesperson, the Office for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion is approving cases on a case-by-case basis, with religious and moral exemptions requiring a notarized attestation and medical exemptions needing a doctor’s signature. 

While exemption requests were due last semester, the University spokesperson recently said Pitt is still working on bringing individuals to compliance. The spokesperson said Pitt will release updated exemption numbers later this month, and noted that as of Nov. 19, the University approved 896 exemptions, with an additional four still under consideration.

For students, faculty and staff who have approved exemptions, the University said they are still required to test negative weekly to maintain building access. Pitt will continue to test “students with exemptions, students who may be symptomatic and any faculty and staff member who requests one.”

According to the mandate, students, faculty and staff who did not get vaccinated or submit a proof of vaccination faced disenrollment from spring semester classes, loss of on-campus housing and inability to enter University buildings. Pitt spokesperson David Seldin said Tuesday that individuals who have been disenrolled and do not wish to become compliant will receive tuition reimbursement through the standard tuition adjustment process. Employees who do not become compliant might also be subjected to additional disciplinary measures, Seldin said.

Seldin added that individuals who are not yet in compliance still have an opportunity to do so. 

“We continue to work with those who are trying to come into compliance, including those who have lost access to buildings (by having their ID deactivated) or select IT resources,” Seldin said. “So that they are permitted to re-enroll for classes and/or regain access, with minimal disruption to their Pitt experience.”

Seldin said the current vaccination rate among students, faculty, and staff across all Pitt campuses is 96%.