The University of Pittsburgh's Daily Student Newspaper

The Pitt News

The University of Pittsburgh's Daily Student Newspaper

The Pitt News

The University of Pittsburgh's Daily Student Newspaper

The Pitt News

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New York Knicks forward Precious Achiuwa (5) shoots over Philadelphia 76ers guard Kelly Oubre Jr., rear, in red, during the first half of an NBA basketball game in New York on Sunday, March 10, 2024. (AP Photo/Peter K. Afriyie)
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New York Knicks forward Precious Achiuwa (5) shoots over Philadelphia 76ers guard Kelly Oubre Jr., rear, in red, during the first half of an NBA basketball game in New York on Sunday, March 10, 2024. (AP Photo/Peter K. Afriyie)
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By Livia LaMarca, Assistant Opinions Editor • May 23, 2024

Students, faculty with disabilities condemn closure of Pitt’s COVID-19 office

A+COVID-19+test+from+2020.
TPN File Image
A COVID-19 test from 2020.

Isabella Wegner said she felt frustrated when Pitt closed their COVID-19 Medical Response Office (CMRO).

“Students want to make informed decisions about masking, and without an office sending out emails like they did last year, it’s hard to make those decisions,” Wegner, a senior gender, sexuality and women’s studies major and outreach coordinator for Chronic Connection, said.

As the fall virus season begins, Pitt and the Allegheny County Health Department continue to encourage vaccination and provide resources for preventing COVID-19 infection. But some students and faculty still have concerns, claiming Pitt shouldn’t have closed the CMRO so soon and that they could do more to address the virus.

Following the end of the federal COVID-19 public health emergency this past May, Pitt’s CMRO ceased maintaining institutional requirements other than the vaccine policy as of Aug 1.

Wegner said she’s concerned that immunocompromised people are not often thought of when administration makes these decisions.

“So, while things are definitely a whole lot better than they were before, I think it’s kind of misleading to say that hey, we don’t need [the CMRO] anymore,” Wegner said. “I think the consensus is that Pitt kind of jumped the gun with closing it.”

According to data collected by the Allegheny County Health Department, COVID-19 infections are down compared to this time last year but have been rising since the end of the federal public health emergency.

During the week of Sept. 25, 2022, Allegheny County reported 1,139 infections, and during the week of Sept. 17, 2023, the county reported 610 infections. At the time that the federal public health emergency ended, beginning the week of May 14, 2023, the county reported 146. The ACHD continues to encourage testing and vaccination, and also provides resources on the county website.

“The Health Department will continue to offer the vaccine at its clinic and is also continuing a schedule of vaccination at community events for vulnerable populations, including low-income senior high rises, and for homebound individuals,” Dr. Barbara Nightingale, deputy director for clinical services at the Allegheny County Health Department, said “The department is also continuing surveillance and continues to work with the State Health Department and the CDC as new information and detail becomes available.”

A University spokesperson said in keeping with the practices of local and federal health authorities, the University is no longer keeping an official count of COVID-19 cases on campus.

“The Pitt Vaccination and Health Connection Hub, Student Health Services and MyHealth@Work monitor illness trends in the area and on campus and issue recommendations based on what they’re seeing,” the spokesperson said in an email. “As an example, coming into fall virus season, Pitt leaders and medical experts sent a campus-wide message with important reminders and resources last month.”

The campus-wide message includes guidelines about masking, testing and isolation, and recommends that students get updated COVID-19 vaccines. As of Oct. 9, adult Pfizer and Moderna vaccines as well as pediatric Pfizer vaccines are available at the Pitt Vaccination and Health Connection Hub, according to their website.

In their final email, the CMRO said the University will now “rely on individuals to take responsibility for their health and the wellbeing of the community with respect to COVID-19.”

Leigh Patel, a professor in the School of Education who has multiple sclerosis, said closing the CMRO indicates that Pitt is “done taking care of the public health.”

“That statement [from the CMRO, saying] public health just really relies on individuals’ decisions — that’s not public health. That makes it an oxymoron,” Patel said.

Patel criticized the closing of the CMRO, calling it a “financial decision.”

“We don’t have to have this office open anymore,” Patel said. “But this office was a place that at least stood in the function of responding to circumstances that COVID had material effects upon. So that office shutting down, in essence is ‘we don’t need to do that anymore.’”

Pitt policy and faculty still encourage students to stay home when they are sick, but pressures to keep up in classes can create a conflict for students, according to Wegner. She said this is especially difficult for students with disabilities.

“If you miss too many classes, you are completely screwed over. And that becomes especially difficult for students with disabilities who already may need to miss class because of doctor appointments, health issues that come up, and we’re still very limited in classes that we can miss,” Wegner said.

Ellen Lee, a teaching assistant professor in the classics department, said faculty who get sick experience similar issues. When Lee was in graduate school at the University of Michigan in 2009, swine flu hit her “really hard.”

“I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t get out of bed. My symptoms were so severe that later my doctor told me I probably should have been hospitalized during that time. It was really bad,” Lee said. “There was no support from my employer, just an attitude that I needed to play through the pain because otherwise somebody else was going to have to do my job uncompensated.”

Once Lee could function, she immediately went back to campus, feeling “really bad” that other people had to take on her work. Since then, Lee has gotten sick “at the drop of a hat.” Having this experience from a previous epidemic, Lee is concerned that the same can happen at Pitt if there isn’t adequate virus prevention and plans in place for instructors who get sick.

“In classrooms with zero virus mitigations, there are no substitute teachers for college instructors,” Lee said. “If I can’t do my job, basically I’m expected to play through the pain as it were because otherwise another one of my colleagues will have to do my job uncompensated.”

Lee also expressed concern for faculty who become sick or disabled while on shorter term contracts.

“We’re going to worry about whether they’re going to get fired or whether the contract will be renewed, especially since a lot of our part time faculty are on semester-by-semester contracts. A lot of other full-time faculty are on yearly contracts,” Lee said.

Lee said when it comes to faculty becoming sick or disabled, things are often handled on an “ad hoc basis.”

“When a problem comes up it’s kind of a crisis and nobody knows what’s going to happen and nobody knows what to do,” Lee said. “I would also like to see the University make plans for what to do when faculty are sick or become disabled.”

As for what she’d like to see the University do, Lee said beside making plans for what happens when faculty gets sick, she’d like to see improved ventilation and air quality, especially in the wake of the smoke pollution Pittsburgh experienced over the summer from the Canadian wildfires.

“We need this not only for disease prevention, which it can help with, but also our current environment,” Lee said.

Editor’s Note: Leigh Patel is a member of The Pitt News Advisory Board. 

About the Contributor
Bella Markovitz, Senior Staff Writer