Ohio University

Public health update: May 18, 2021

Published: May 18, 2021 Author: Staff reports

Dear OHIO community members,

As COVID-19 cases decline in the state and the nation, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Gov. DeWine have announced big shifts in public health measures. As you’ve probably read, the CDC now advises that with a few notable exceptions, people who are vaccinated can feel comfortable removing their masks during all activities, can travel domestically with few additional measures, do not need to quarantine, and do not need to do regular screening tests in a low-incidence environment. The Governor will lift all public health orders on June 2, emphasizing personal choice and responsibility. He also has announced that until June 2, vaccinated individuals may do most activities without a facial covering or social distancing.

Despite these developments for vaccinated individuals, the CDC and the Ohio Department of Health still advise public health precautions for unvaccinated individuals. This presents many challenges for our University community.

Diverse opinions, complicated factors

From the start of the pandemic, there has been a range in individual understanding of the virus, differential assessments of risk, and varying responses to personal and public health measures. I’ve heard from many of you – some writing out of concern, many writing in frustration, and others feeling comforted by the measures the University is taking. As we enter this next phase of the pandemic, campus stakeholders will continue to have diverse opinions, and the decisions we make will not please everyone.

Beyond the assortment of opinions, the science, local epidemiology, and policy also are complicated.

Based on the national and state trends, I do not expect more than 50 percent of the OHIO community to be vaccinated at the start of fall semester. It is hard to say what the community case rates will be in August with no remaining public health orders, increased travel, and vaccinated and unvaccinated people letting their guard down. 

We don’t yet know if immunity from vaccine will wane at some point or what that point will be. We know that variants are raging in many countries, and we have limited science on the vaccine protection against variants. All the vaccine studies have been done under strong public health measures – masks, distance, decreased density, and limited travel. This all sets us up for a potential surge, even with significant numbers of people being vaccinated. For these reasons, while I hope it isn’t the case, I expect that we will start fall semester with a high rate of spread.

I have full confidence that the COVID Operations team can identify cases through testing and rapidly isolate sick and quarantine exposed individuals. But our ability to manage infection rates will be significantly hampered if we do not use masks in some situations. Nor can we identify or evaluate breakthrough infection without some surveillance testing of those who are vaccinated.

Asking important questions

The recent mask recommendation from CDC for vaccinated people has been criticized for several reasons. Particularly at issue for the University is the impossible situation it presents for implementation. How is anyone to know if someone is removing a mask because they are vaccinated, or if they simply don’t want to wear a mask – for whatever reason? How can organizations protect their community while maintaining individual privacy in a way that is logistically feasible?

These are the questions that I am asking myself and my colleagues. While we can debate about personal choice, when it comes to COVID, the choices we make have an impact on others around us. The choices the University makes have an impact on our students, faculty and staff, as well as the broader communities in which we sit. It is also important to remember that health disparities are as present in this pandemic as they are with many other healthcare issues, so we must also consider the underserved and vulnerable among us.

I do not yet have an answer to how the University might revise public health measures through the summer and into the fall, but I wanted you all to know that I am asking these questions as we work toward solutions. I am also consulting with colleagues at other public colleges and universities in Ohio, local health department officials, and science policy experts. I am listening to concerns from the various stakeholders and discussing them with Chief Medical Affairs Officer Ken Johnson, my team, and senior University leadership. I am exploring technological solutions to managing protocols by vaccination status. As always, I will share our next steps with you as we further develop plans.

Dr. Gillian Ice
Special Assistant to the President for Public Health Operations