With over 95% of Emory students and nearly 92% of faculty and staff vaccinated as of Tuesday, Emory University has taken a new approach to managing COVID-19 in the fall semester.
Before vaccines were widely available in the U.S., the University used statistics such as case numbers and level of transmission to determine safety policies. Now, “we’re looking at severe illness, hospitalization, and death” to guide decision-making, St. Clair, Associate Vice President and Executive Director for COVID-19 Response and Recovery, said during the virtual University Senate Town Hall in late August. The Town Hall was open to all Emory faculty, staff and students.
“Ultimately, the goal [in previous semesters] was around infection prevention,” St. Clair explained. “When you move to a largely-vaccinated community, and you yourself are vaccinated, which we’re asking everybody to be, how you measure risk changes.”
St. Clair said that the goal now is to “ultimately minimize illness.” This change in approach is due to high vaccination among Emory community members, but also stems from acknowledging that COVID-19 has continued and will continue to spread.
“The biggest reason why we pushed requiring vaccinations is because we knew that was the most critical tool for us to get over this hump of infection prevention and be able to position our community members to have the most critical tool to prevent illness,” St. Clair said. “Certainly, we’d love to have zero cases, but the reality is we’re going to have COVID with us for a while.”
Since the Town Hall, Emory has moved to a “modified yellow” operating status, restricting the Dobbs Common Table and Oxford Dining Hall to students with meal plans and requiring large events with over 250 people to be held outdoors, according to a student-wide email from St. Clair sent on Thursday.
When asked how the University will handle booster vaccines, St. Clair emphasized that the FDA has not approved boosters, nor does the CDC currently recommend them. He also explained that, while the FDA has approved a third dose for immunocompromised individuals, a third dose is part of the primary vaccine series, while a booster helps increase the immunity of fully vaccinated individuals after some time.
The FDA approved an Emergency Use Authorization for a third dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine in mid-August for “solid organ transplant recipients or those who are diagnosed with conditions that are considered to have an equivalent level of immunocompromise.”
Emory is currently offering three types of COVID-19 testing services for students, faculty and staff. These services include entry testing for unvaccinated students arriving back on campus; screening testing, which is available for all students, faculty and staff but only required weekly for individuals who are currently not fully vaccinated; and diagnostic testing, for those with symptoms or known COVID-19 exposure.
Among unvaccinated individuals required to be tested weekly, compliance was above 95% among students, faculty and staff as of late August, according to St. Clair. The percentage of positive screening tests for the 10 days preceding Sep. 6 was 4.58% for students and 0.82% for faculty and staff, as reported on the Emory University COVID-19 Dashboard.
In addition to case numbers and vaccination rates, the University is also monitoring the volume of students in isolation and quarantine at the Emory Conference Center Hotel.
“We have reserved spaces based on projection models. When we hit a certain threshold we go ahead and automatically activate the next set of spaces that we need for those quarantine and isolation conditions,” St. Clair explained.
The University is also monitoring the CDC’s travel policies, to ensure students can travel and study abroad safely, St. Clair said. He explained that the school is prepared to “increase our testing capacity, … pull back on gatherings or travel … [or] change masking protocols” if case numbers, the isolation and quarantine population, CDC guidelines or other factors require it.