1. Fall term COVID-19 health and safety update

    August 25, 2021

    To All Members of the Campus Community:

    The University of Michigan’s fall term begins next week, and I want to update you on the work we’re doing to prepare for a vibrant residential educational experience for our students, their instructors and the staff who support these efforts. Thousands of you deserve the credit for these efforts, and I thank everyone who has worked so hard as we return to more traditional activities.

    We recognize that the COVID-19 pandemic has not ended and that many are concerned about their health and that of their family members, especially in light of rising case numbers and the more infectious Delta variant of SARS-CoV2. The approach to campus safety outlined below meets or exceeds current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and professional organization guidance and has the support of our own public health and medical experts.

    The most important component of our approach to protecting the community is succeeding: Campus vaccination rates are high and climbing. Currently, 91 percent of students, 87 percent of faculty and 72 percent of campus staff are fully vaccinated. The percentage among students makes them one of the most, if not the most, highly vaccinated populations in our state.

    In addition, we’re requiring face coverings indoors to start the semester, as well as making COVID-19 testing readily available, and in some cases, mandatory.

    While breakthrough infections (infections among those who are fully vaccinated) have increased due to the Delta variant, we know that vaccines significantly reduce the risk of being infected and greatly reduce the likelihood of getting severely ill, even with this variant.

    As U-M Chief Health Officer Preeti Malani and coauthors from Emory and Yale wrote last week in JAMA, “Vaccines are the only way forward that will preserve the health care infrastructure and the economy, and eventually contain the pandemic.”

    Health and safety measures in place for the fall term include:

    • Vaccines are required, with limited exemptions, for students, faculty and staff. Widespread vaccination remains our best protection against COVID-19.This week, we announced enforcement policies for students and employees to support the vaccination requirement (Michigan Medicine will announce its policy soon). Those few who receive an exemption from vaccination must be tested weekly. Vaccination and face coverings are the two most important tools we have to protect health and safety, and leadership will focus strongly on compliance.
    • Face coverings reduce the spread of COVID-19, including breakthrough infections. We’re requiring them indoors in most settings and recommending them for spectators and others at outdoor Athletic events.
    • The Community Sampling and Tracking Program
    • We’re requiring daily symptom checking using the ResponsiBLUE app for community members and guests entering campus buildings. ResponsiBLUE will also indicate vaccination status or COVID-19 test compliance for those who have religious or medical exemptions and those who are not yet in compliance with the vaccination requirement.
    • Many units are reducing density through hybrid work plans, and our U-M Environment, Health and Safety department has updated its guidelines that units can put in place to minimize risks in campus operations. We did not see spread in the workplace when safety precautions were followed, even before vaccines were available.
    • We encourage you to stay home if you are sick, and we’ve updated COVID-19 scenarios for students living in U-M Housing and off campus.
    • Researchers at the U-M School of Public Health and College of Engineering are expanding the wastewater monitoring program developed in coordination with the state of Michigan to track COVID-19 spread in our community. The program recently completed its pilot phase and will regularly track spread on campus, off campus, and across the Ann Arbor, Flint and Ypsilanti areas.
    • The epidemiology subcommittee of our Campus Health Response Committee, led by faculty from the School of Public Health, is working to update our Campus Response Metrics, taking into account what we’ve learned about COVID-19 over the past several months, including the Delta variant.

    To address additional questions, I will host a Campus COVID-19 Briefing on Friday from 9 to 10 a.m. with Provost Susan M. Collins, Vice President for Student Life Martino Harmon, Chief Health Officer Malani and other campus leaders. It will be open to students, faculty and staff with U-M credentials, and an invitation with a Zoom link and question submission form was sent yesterday. Michigan Medicine is holding a town hall Thursday from 1 to 2 p.m. on its vaccination policy.

    I will continue to provide COVID-19 updates when needed to help keep everyone informed, address concerns and respond to feedback and questions from our community. You also may read the University Record for the latest stories and the Campus Maize and Blueprint site for updates. Stay safe and be healthy.

    Vaccination Update

    I thank everyone who has reported their vaccination status to the university. Our campus community is highly vaccinated, and the numbers are climbing every day. As noted above, nearly 90 percent of students, 85 percent of faculty and 71 percent of campus staff are fully vaccinated. Additionally, 77 percent of our Michigan Medicine community is vaccinated.

    Vaccination in the U-M community is generally higher than rates in Washtenaw County and the state. The percentage among students makes them one of the most, if not the most, highly vaccinated populations in our state.

    The Delta variant of the coronavirus spreads much more rapidly, and we’re seeing increased cases, particularly in parts of the United States with low vaccination rates. I know this is causing a lot of concern and questions in our community.

    U-M Chief Health Officer Preeti Malani’s video from last week addressed several of the concerns we’ve been hearing most.

    Dr. Malani and coauthors from Emory (Carlos del Rio) and Yale (Saad B. Omer) also published a Viewpoint in JAMA last week that discusses vaccine effectiveness, breakthrough cases and the Delta variant. The data we have supports the need for widespread vaccination. As they note, “Vaccines are the only way forward that will preserve the healthcare infrastructure and the economy, and eventually contain the pandemic.”

    They further write:

    The spread of Delta is largely a reflection of the uneven vaccination coverage in the U.S., with substantially higher numbers of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths among states with low vaccination rates and limited public health mitigation measures. … What is increasingly clear is that breakthrough infections remain infrequent but are occurring with the Delta variant; however, the currently available vaccines remain highly effective against severe disease, hospitalization, and death. The overwhelming majority of severe cases occurring in the U.S. are among unvaccinated individuals.

    In other words, breakthrough infections do occur, but they are significantly less frequent among fully vaccinated individuals, and illness is much less severe. We’ve taken the approach that mitigation measures are particularly important during the early part of the semester when many are arriving to the community from other areas where prevalence of infection may be even higher.

    U-M Vaccination Requirement and Policies

    All students, faculty and staff on the Ann Arbor (including Michigan Medicine), Dearborn and Flint campuses are required to be vaccinated against COVID-19 and submit their vaccination information by August 30.

    This week, we announced enforcement policies for students and employees to support the vaccination requirement (Michigan Medicine will announce its policy soon). Multiple communications have been sent to those who aren’t yet in compliance with the requirement. Supervisors can check ResponsiBLUE screens for their supervisee’s compliance with the vaccination mandate. Beginning August 30, employees on the Ann Arbor, Dearborn and Flint campuses who are non-compliant will be subject to a two-step disciplinary process.

    Vaccination and face coverings are the two most important tools we have to protect health and safety, and leadership will focus strongly on compliance.

    We’ve made advisers available to students, faculty and staff who have questions or concerns about the COVID-19 vaccine, and we’ve also added additional details and FAQs regarding the limited exemptions to the requirement.

    Guidance for Workplaces and Events on Campus

    We’ve heard a lot of questions in this area, so I’ll summarize our latest guidance.

    Units are enacting plans for the resumption of more in-person work based on their specific needs. These decisions remain at the unit level. Our U-M Environment, Health and Safety Office has updated its guidelines that units can put in place to minimize risks in campus operations. We have not seen spread in the workplace when safety precautions are followed, even before vaccines were available.

    For campus events, we have worked with medical and public health experts across the university and with state and local governments to develop ways to allow events and gatherings to continue on campus while still providing a safe atmosphere.

    There are no longer universitywide restrictions on capacity of events, which aligns with county guidance, and units should request approval of events through their leadership.

    However, community members and guests entering buildings are required to complete the daily ResponsiBLUE health questionnaire and weekly COVID-19 testing (if applicable). Face coverings are required indoors, with limited exceptions.

    In Michigan Stadium, the indoor mask requirement applies to all indoor spaces, including restrooms, locker rooms, press boxes, operational booths, suites, etc. We encourage all fans to wear masks outdoors as well.

    Additional Updates

    • Researchers at our School of Public Health and College of Engineering have been developing a wastewater monitoring program in coordination with the state of Michigan, to track COVID-19 spread in the U-M community. The wastewater monitoring program recently completed its pilot phase and is now expanding to regularly track COVID-19 spread on campus, off-campus, and in the Ann Arbor, Flint, Jackson and Ypsilanti areas. Funding from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services is supporting this work, and the project is just one example of our faculty stepping up to protect communities in our state. Monitoring wastewater is another layer in our health and safety efforts. It helps us track where COVID-19 is in our communities and intervene earlier if there are outbreaks.
    • The Michigan Medicine Health Blog discusses new federal approval of a third vaccine dose for people whose immune systems are weakened by a condition or a medication – and highlights the importance of their loved ones getting vaccinated.
    • The Health Blog describes why wearing face coverings is important, even for fully vaccinated individuals.

    Sincerely,

    Mark S. Schlissel, M.D., Ph.D.
    President