With new strains of the COVID-19 virus circulating and only about 15% of Virginians fully vaccinated against the original strain, University of Virginia medical experts say society should not rush a return to old routines.
Doctors with the UVa Medical Center and School of Medicine said during a weekly news conference Friday that schools need to reopen to provide more education opportunities for students but that society at large should remain cautious.
Dr. Costi Sifri, director of hospital epidemiology at the UVa Medical Center, said about 25% to 30% of Virginians have had at least one shot in the arm of vaccine. About 15% of the population has received a full dose.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has estimated as much as 80% of the population needs to either be vaccinated or develop antibodies from exposure to the virus before the population has herd immunity from COVID-19.
“It’s going to take a little bit of time to get up to where we need to be for herd immunity, and we need to be cautious about opening things up,” Sifri said. “We’re still in a pandemic. We need to continue to take steps we need to mitigate the spread of COVID.”
Dr. Taison Bell, director of the medical intensive care unit at the UVa Medical Center, said there is no switch that can turn off the pandemic.
“A lot of [beating the pandemic] is going to depend on opening up a little at a time. We have seen changes in behavior, like traveling, and saw an uptick [in cases],” Bell said. “It is going to be a gradual process to do it the right way.”
The doctors’ comments came as Virginia begins to loosen the two-month crackdown following a holiday-related surge of cases. On Wednesday, Gov. Ralph Northam announced eased restrictions on graduation ceremonies and other venues in the face of decreasing COVID cases across the commonwealth.
Later that day, UVa administrators said the Northam’s new limit of up to 5,000 people, or 30% of venue capacity, whichever is lower, for outdoor graduation ceremonies prompted them to reconsider their decision earlier this month to cancel May’s Final Exercises.
Indoor ceremonies may have up to 500 people, or 30% of the venue capacity, whichever is lower.
On March 12, UVa administrators relaxed restrictions on students, allowing them to gather in small outdoor groups of up to 10 people and to eat in groups of four, providing everyone wears masks and stays six feet away from one another.
Indoor gatherings remain limited at six people with masks and distancing required.
Also on March 12, the UVa Inter-Sorority Council allowed chapters to resume in-person events, providing those events followed UVa guidelines. The sorority council, as well as the UVa Inter-Fraternity Council, had shut down all in-person events after a surge in cases led administrators to lock down Grounds on Feb. 16.
The fraternity council’s suspension of in-person events is scheduled to be in force until the end of March.
“Based on current conditions, we can resume in-person chapter activities, in compliance with UVa, state and local guidelines. However, it remains more important than ever to maintain compliance with public health guidelines and practice safe habits to ensure that virus numbers continue to trend in the right direction,” council leaders wrote in a message to chapters.
“The objective of this revision is to maintain engagement within our communities and integrate new members, while prioritizing health and safety,” the council statement reads. “To be as clear as possible, this adjustment prohibits any chapter activity that conflicts with university guidelines in any capacity.”
Students have faced a variety of restrictions since starting the spring semester Feb. 1. The semester began with a six-person gathering limit, mask mandate and social distancing requirement.
By Feb. 16, nearly 650 students had tested positive for the virus, with a high of 229 cases reported that day alone. That prompted administrators to restrict students to residences except for trips to class, food and work.
Off-Grounds students were prohibited from coming onto the campus except to attend classes.
Students were only allowed to dine in groups of two, recreational facilities were shuttered and libraries were closed with only contactless pickup and drop offs.
Those restrictions were eased on Feb. 26 after a dramatic fall in cases and further eased on March 12.
Bell said efforts need to be increased to provide vaccinations to lower-income, rural and minority populations that do not have easy access to medical facilities, transportation or internet service.
He said opening mass vaccination sites is great, but many people do not have readily available transportation across town, the time to wait on hold to make an appointment by phone or high-speed internet needed to register or receive emails from the Virginia Department of Health.
Bell said minority communities are now more accepting of the vaccine, but still have less access to it.
“Time to wait on the phone or in line is a luxury and many people simply don’t have that luxury,” he said. “We need to make access to the vaccine a downhill process that’s easy, not an uphill process.”
Bell said there are efforts to work with taxi companies and on-demand transportation such as Lyft and Uber to get people to vaccination sites.
“One thing we’re trying to do is find ways to bring the vaccine into their neighborhoods with clinics that include interpreters to help overcome issues with transportation and access and provide education,” Bell said.