Pennsylvania colleges relax rules, emphasize vaccinations in ‘new phase’ of pandemic


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Verne M. Willaman Gateway to the Sciences on Penn State’s campus.

By Alexandra Ross, Senior Staff Writer

The COVID-19 pandemic is not over yet, according to Dr. Lee Harrison, an epidemiologist at Pitt, but it has entered a new era.

I think we’re in a totally different phase of the pandemic,” Harrison said. “Individuals can control their risk pretty well… The pandemic is not over, but I think we are in a new phase.”

Colleges and universities across the U.S. have embraced this new phase, including Pennsylvania’s three largest institutions of higher education: Pitt, Penn State and Temple University. Each of the three has relaxed masking, testing and isolation measures to some degree. 

Nicholas France, a Pitt spokesperson, said at this point in the pandemic, Pitt is emphasizing the importance of personal responsibility for one’s health and continues to encourage community members to be mindful of COVID-19. 

“The CMRO messages have reminded our community members to keep up good habits, such as masking in large crowds, staying up to date on vaccinations and being aware of the CDC Community Levels in their location,” France said. 

Penn State and Temple have both made masks completely optional this year regardless of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention community level, unlike Pitt, which still requires masks on campuses when the community level is high. Steve Orbanek, director of communications at Temple, said while masks are not required there, Temple asks community members to respect those who continue to wear them. 

“When it comes to masking, we encourage all members of the Temple community to make the best decision for themselves, taking into consideration all factors, including COVID-19 transmission levels, the indoor setting and their own health, while respecting the decisions of others to protect themselves,” Orbanek said. 

Each university has put mandatory asymptomatic testing for unvaccinated individuals on hold. Pitt was the only one of the three to require arrival testing for on-campus students this fall, and response testing for symptomatic people is available at all three universities. 

Colleges have also limited their permanently available isolation housing. Pitt has reduced isolation housing to 25 beds this semester, and Penn State recently made headlines after it had to isolate COVID-positive students at the Nittany Lion Inn after its 46 on-campus isolation housing beds — reduced from last semester — filled up. Wyatt DuBois, assistant director for university public relations at Penn State, said the university will remain flexible in its approach. 

“Of course, the university is committed to meeting the needs of our students and our plans and resources will continue to evolve as needs and pandemic conditions change, as they have from the beginning of the pandemic,” DuBois said. 

France said Pitt will stay similarly flexible in its approach, and is prepared to add more testing, masking and isolation measures if necessary. 

“We expect COVID levels to fluctuate throughout the term and have prepared accordingly,” France said. “Our health rules allow the University to impose additional mitigation measures, such as increased testing or masking requirements, if such protection is needed in certain locations or settings.”

Universities build their COVID-19 policies based on recommendations and mandates from a variety of experts. France said Pitt depends largely on CDC guidance, while Temple cites frequent communication with the Philadelphia Department of Public Health as well as the university president’s Public Health Advisory council. 

At the forefront of colleges’ efforts to mitigate COVID-19 spread at this point are vaccinations. Pitt and Temple each require students and employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19, though they have exemptions and are not requiring boosters at this time. Penn State does not require students to be vaccinated, though it does require vaccinations for employees and highly recommends them for students. 

Each college offers the newest versions of the COVID-19 vaccine to its students for free. On Friday, Penn State partnered with Centre Volunteers in Medicine to distribute the vaccine to students. The clinic accepted both appointments and walk-ins, and DuBois said students filled every available time slot. 

According to Lee, while other measures such as masking can reduce the risk of getting COVID-19, the key to protecting oneself from getting sick — especially severe sickness — is getting vaccinated. Lee said everyone who is eligible for the booster should get boosted.

“We, for the first time, have a vaccine — well, the first time in a long time that we have a vaccine that closely matches the currently circulating strains, and that’s a really exciting development,” Lee said. “That’s why I would encourage everybody who’s eligible for a booster with this new bivalent vaccine to go ahead and do that.”