University of Virginia students can expect COVID-19 restrictions and requirements to continue when they return to Grounds from winter break, officials told the university’s Board of Visitors on Friday.
Administrators, faculty and students were also praised to the board and by the board for efforts at helping the university make a quick move from on-Grounds to online classes in March and for limiting the spread of COVID-19 during the fall semester.
UVa President Jim Ryan told the university’s Board of Visitors during a virtual meeting that the university saw an estimated 1,250 COVID cases between August and Thanksgiving.
He said seven staff, faculty or employees were hospitalized with virus and all fully recovered. He said no students needed hospitalization.
Using saliva tests developed by the UVa School of Medicine and UVa Medical Center, the university went from testing 338 people a day in September to 1,300 a day at semester’s end, including one day near the end when 2,200 people were tested.
Officials said that, as of Friday, UVa had completed 35,000 COVID-19 tests.
“We developed our own tests. We worked hard, often in cooperation with the [Thomas Jefferson Health Department] to do contact tracing. We developed hybrid classes that were online and in-person where no similar classes had existed,” Ryan told the board. “This was truly a team effort, and a heroic effort at that, that involved thousands of students and staff.”
Ryan presented national statistics that showed UVa and the surrounding community had a lower positivity rate and number of cases than most communities of similar size with large universities.
“Some of the low results were because we were doing so much testing, but I want to point out that the rates were down here even while others were increasing,” Ryan said. “We learned to stay ahead of the virus as best as possible, even if it meant increasing restrictions, which we did.”
Ryan and other administrators credited the university staff with developing new curricula to move college courses online as well as rethinking everything from dining halls to dormitories to provide more safety to staff and students.
Staff installed nearly 56,000 safety-related signs across Grounds and put up 2,200 Plexiglas shields and a similar number of stations for hand sanitizer, officials said.
“The crisis that the university and society and everyone was dealing with was unique,” said UVa Provost Liz Magill. “It was like a major, constant weather event that hit in February and hasn’t stopped since. It’s like a hurricane that keeps going. It brought a lot of changes. It changed almost daily. It required us to do many things in different ways.”
UVa Rector Jim Murray said the Board of Visitors helped pave the way for success by being quick to react and give administrators needed resources. He noted that the board, which normally meets about four times a year, met a dozen times with all but one meeting online.
“We approached this pandemic as a deadly problem,” he said. “And we approached it with money. It will be a long time before we know how much the financial fallout will be but it’s about $40 million of non-recoverable money.”
How the pandemic will play out in the New Year is an unknown, but Ryan said social restrictions implemented in the fall semester will be in place when students begin returning in late January to help limit the virus’ spread.
“We’re going to continue with the protocols so students will have to comply with masking and social distancing,” he told the board. “We will also increase testing so that we will test students once a week and offer testing for faculty staff and who return to Grounds to work in-person.”
Administrators told the Board of Visitors that the university community will be expected to adhere to the restrictions even as the weather warms in the spring and more receive vaccinations, which are scheduled to begin next week for frontline caregivers.
“We’ll have an uncomfortable period where people who are vaccinated will want to get on with their lives and be free of the restrictions while those who have not been vaccinated will have different guidelines,” said Dr. Costi Sifri, director of hospital epidemiology at UVa Medical Center. “That will be an issue not just here but in the community, itself.”
Dr. Craig Kent, executive vice president for health affairs at UVa, said sticking to restrictions will be important to stymie the virus’ spread.
“Your approach to the virus after you’re vaccinated should be the same as your approach to the virus before you’re vaccinated,” Kent said. “I think the next few weeks are going to be important to see if hospitalizations are going increase or decline.”
Ryan said he is confident the university will have a successful spring semester based on its fall performance.
“We’re well prepared for the spring because we’ve been through this in March and this semester,” Ryan said. “It has been an extraordinary nine months.”