A panel of university officials and local health experts convened at the Moss Arts Center on Wednesday afternoon for a discussion about the importance of vaccines and the latest on ongoing preparations for a full, in-person experience for Virginia Tech students this fall.

The panel consisted of Frank Shushok Jr., vice president for student affairs; Mike Mulhare, assistant vice president for emergency management; Laura Hungerford, department head and professor in the Department of Population Health Sciences; Lee Learman, the dean of the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine; and Molly O’Dell, adjunct professor in the Department of Population Health Sciences, who served as the lead of the pandemic response for the Roanoke Alleghany Health District. Dawn Jefferies, director of visual content strategies at Virginia Tech, moderated the panel discussion.

University officials announced in late March that they were preparing for a full, in-person fall semester. In early June, they made the decision to mandate COVID-19 vaccines for all students attending the university this fall. Only students with certain medical issues and those with sincerely held religious beliefs are exempt from this requirement. Other major state universities, including Virginia, James Madison, and Virginia Commonwealth, have implemented similar requirements.

Here are some highlights from the panel discussion:

Panel discussion
Molly O'Dell (left) and Frank Shushok Jr. participated in the panel discussion. O'Dell is an adjunct professor in the Department of Population Health Sciences and served as the lead of the pandemic response for the Roanoke Alleghany Health District. Shushok is vice president for student affairs. Photo by Ryan Young for Virginia Tech

Deadline approaching

Virginia Tech students have until Aug. 6 to upload a copy of their vaccination card to the Online Student Health Portal. To be transparent, university officials launched a dashboard that gets updated twice per week and details the population of both employees and students who have reported their vaccination status.

Those same officials strongly encouraged employees to be vaccinated, but stopped short of a mandate for them. A survey conducted in April revealed that 90 percent of the university’s employees who responded already had been vaccinated or in the process of being vaccinated. However, unvaccinated employees will be required to undergo COVID-19 testing periodically and to wear a mask while at work.

As of July 12, 37 percent of Virginia Tech students had reported being vaccinated — approximately 11,000 students. That number swelled to 58 percent on the employee side. Employees need to report their vaccination status by Aug. 15.

University officials continue to monitor closely the numbers because that information helps them with their plans.

“We would urge anyone who has been vaccinated and hasn’t submitted their registration to do so,” Mulhare said. “It’s an important tool for us as far as what mitigation strategies we may need to do come the fall semester … It does impact our planning for what we can do in the fall.”

Virginia Tech students and faculty can get vaccinations on campus Thursday at the North End Center on Turner Street and next Tuesday at the same location. For other dates and locations to receive a vaccination in the New River Valley, please visit this page.

“We will continue that as long as there is a need,” Mulhare said of the on-campus clinics.

Consequences for students who refuse to comply with mandate

Students not only receive constant reminders about the approaching Aug. 6 deadline, but also about the consequences of not abiding by the vaccine mandate. If students refuse to comply with the mandate by Aug. 6, then they will not be allowed to enroll for the fall semester. They will not be allowed to move into any on-campus residence hall as well.

“The consequences are significant,” Shushok said. “It’s important that students know that if they don’t upload their vaccination verification by Aug. 6, then we will begin the process of dis-enrolling them from their fall classes. They’ll be removed from their classes. So, that’s as significant as can be.

“Another important thing is for our students who live in the residence halls. You won’t be able to move into a residence hall if you haven’t uploaded your vaccination requirement. Of course, that’s earlier than when classes begin. It’s incredibly important that people go ahead and upload their vaccination verification, so that we can get those things cleared up to make sure people are ready to go for the fall semester.”

Concerns about delta variant

The delta variant, a mutation of the COVID-19 virus, continues to create concern among public health officials and has become the dominant strain in the United States. This spin-off attacks lung cells more quickly and spreads more rapidly among a population. Scientists are tracking the data and believe the variant leads to more hospitalizations and deaths.

However, multiple studies have revealed that vaccines reduce risk against this strain. Therein lies another reason why Virginia Tech officials implemented the vaccine mandate and continue to encourage vaccinations.

“Over time, we’ve learned the vaccinations, no matter which they are, hold up really well in terms of demonstrating effectiveness against the variants, including the delta variant,” Learman said. “So, that’s sort of the good news story.

“Unfortunately, the delta variant is more infectious … and therefore, for those that are not vaccinated, it spreads faster. In communities that have low vaccination rates, more of those exposed folks are not going to be immune to the variant, so it’s going to spread faster and cause a disproportionate burden of hospitalizations and deaths among unvaccinated folks.”

“Southwest Virginia has the highest number of the variants compared to the other regions of the state,” O’Dell said. “So, we have concerns because our vaccination rates in Southwest Virginia are lower than in Northern Virginia … People need to understand what the consequences of the delta variant in our community because all that virus wants to do is replicate – and it will find the unvaccinated to do that.”

Dealing with misinformation

Many people opting not to get the vaccine cite the vaccine’s lack of full approval from the Food and Drug Administration as a reason why. The FDA approved the Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson vaccines using an emergency use authorization, determining that the benefits outweighed the risks.

Also, many believe that the vaccine was rushed into production, and others cite possible health risks. But most of these myths are falsehoods, according to public health experts.

The method for the creation of the vaccine started years ago, so companies were able to move quickly on the COVID-19 vaccine early in the pandemic. Companies also conducted some of the steps for producing the vaccine on an overlapping schedule to collect data faster. Social media helped researchers to find qualified volunteers, and the speed with which COVID-19 spread allowed researchers to see quickly if their respective vaccines worked.

As for oft-cited health issues, there is no evidence that the vaccine causes any problems with pregnancies, according to public health experts. There is also no evidence that fertility problems are a side effect of the vaccine. Vaccines also do not alter one’s DNA because the vaccine never enters one’s cells, which stores DNA.

“I would say that when it comes down to the individuals who are resistant, if they feel comfortable sharing the source of their resistance to someone whom they feel is really trying to be there for them without another agenda, they’re more likely to ask the questions they really want to ask,” Learman said. “We can answer those or put them in touch with those who can answer them and then have someone vaccinate them should they be interested in doing that.

“Moving from these larger initiatives down to those one-on-one initiatives is probably going to be what we need to do to get us all of the way there.”

Enjoy the benefits

University officials continue to stress the positives of vaccinations in addition to the health benefit of being protected. They plan to open dining facilities to full capacity, allow for study abroad (with a watchful eye on the conditions in specific countries), and hold on-campus events, including sporting events.

Virginia Tech opens its football season Sept. 3 against North Carolina at Lane Stadium.

“What I’m hopeful for as we come back to campus and have in-person learning and we gather around dining tables and we gather around people’s apartments, that the learning will turn right back up and the friendships and the relationships will begin to build,” Shushok said. “I think that’s what the Virginia Tech has experience has been known for, a Virginia Tech hands-on education looks like.

“We know how experiential, how relational learning is. So, when we say want a normal fall, we want to come back to those kinds of experiences that accelerate our learning. They give us life and fullness and richness. Those are things we love about a Virginia Tech education. We’re really close to being able to do that. So, that’s what we’re hoping for this fall —a return to that kind of powerful education that we all love, and that means we all have to do our part, whatever we can, for the better of everyone, so we can get back to doing what we do best.”

—    Written by Jimmy Robertson

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