After essentially locking down Grounds for 10 days, the University of Virginia will allow students to gather in groups of six or less and will relax other pandemic restrictions.
Effective immediately, the decision announced Friday continues to limit indoor dining to groups of two. Other university facilities, such as recreation centers and libraries, will reopen and students can resume normal activity.
Officials encouraged students to stick to a specific pod, or bubble, of people and to continue to follow the range of mitigation measures.
“The only thing preventing another spike in cases and a return to more restrictive measures is our commitment, as a community and as individuals, to remain vigilant and faithfully follow the public health measures we have in place,” UVa officials wrote in the announcement.
They added that though the changes are good news, they are not a sign that the university is out of the woods.
The announcement came as the UVa Medical Center said it would ease its current visitation policy and allow visitors back in on a limited basis. Those changes will go into effect Tuesday.
Amid the holiday surge of cases, the Medical Center banned visitors with limited exceptions, which included for patients at the end of their life.
During a media briefing Friday, Reid Adams, chief medical officer for UVa, said the Medical Center looked at a variety of data points in making its decision. Those included testing prevalence, trends in COVID-19 hospitalizations and the overall number of COVID-19 patients at the hospital.
“We try to take all of those things into account with the idea that as conditions improve, we’re able to then increase the amount and type of visitations that we can bring into the institution because the risk of exposure goes down,” he said.
As of Wednesday, UVa has 43 COVID-19 patients and the seven-day average of new daily hospitalization is down to five from its high of 9.5 in early January.
Additional visitors will be allowed to the Medical Center’s inpatient units, emergency department and procedural areas. All visitors will be screened for COVID-19 symptoms and must not have any to enter.
Those in the inpatient units can have two designated visitors, with only one allowed at a time. Those in outpatient areas can have one visitor.
As with the current policy, there are some exceptions, such as for patients at the end of their lives, who can have two visitors 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
For more information, go to uvahealth.com/services/covid19-visiting-restrictions.
After announcing the stricter measures earlier this month, UVa President Jim Ryan and other officials said during a community town hall that the February spike was the result of many students not following the COVID-19 guidelines.
Contact tracing has shown that indoor dining is a higher-risk activity, hence the continued restriction.
“This virus exploits small mistakes,” UVa officials wrote Friday. “Many of the cases that led to the spike started with minor lapses like two or three people removing their masks to eat together in a dorm room or off-Grounds residence.”
Since the new restrictions went into effect, the number of daily new cases and the positivity rate have declined.
“On the first full day of our new public health measures, we registered 229 new cases, our highest total of the year by far,” UVa officials wrote. “Yesterday, we saw just 26 new cases.”
UVa students made up 53% of the 2,239 new cases reported this month in the Blue Ridge Health District. That’s the second-highest monthly total since the pandemic began last March.
The record was set last month, when 3,237 new cases were reported.
Similar to January, hospitalizations continued to rise quickly with 75 new people hospitalized in the health district this month, bringing the total to 510.
As the Virginia Department of Health started to work through a backlog of 2021 death certificates related to the holiday surge in cases, the death toll locally has started to come into focus. Thirty-two new COVID-related deaths have been reported this month, the highest of any month during the pandemic.
Since last March, 142 people have died in the health district, including 54 in Albemarle County and 41 in Charlottesville.
The university will continue to limit volunteer activity “out of a concern for spreading the virus into the community.” However, students who are emergency medical technicians or firefighters and have been vaccinated can resume those volunteer activities.
All other health and safety guidelines, including restrictions on visitors and travel, remain in effect, according to the announcement.