The majority of students, faculty, and staff at Virginia Tech are fully vaccinated for COVID-19. So, why are masks still required in indoor spaces at the university?

University leaders will continue to monitor the data and introduce changes when it is safe to do so. But until COVID-19 transmission rates remain consistently low, Virginia Tech will continue to require individuals to wear masks in public, indoor spaces, regardless of vaccination status.

"We're trending in the right direction, but we want to see those trends continue before we change any mitigation strategies," said Mike Mulhare, assistant vice president for emergency management at Virginia Tech. "We don't want to take a step backwards."

As the contagious delta variant spreads locally and across the country, and some breakthrough infections are possible, wearing a mask, along with other mitigation strategies, is an important step to help reduce the rate of infection.

Virginia Tech is monitoring transmission rates for COVID-19 on the Blacksburg campus, and this week, these rates declined to a moderate level from a substantial level previously, Mulhare said. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines a moderate transmission rate as 10 to 49 positive cases per 100,000 people. The transmission rate, based on last week’s testing data (the past seven days), declined from approximately 73 to 27 cases per 100,000 people.

For Southwest Virginia, the COVID-19 transmission rate was in the high level, with 424 cases per 100,000 people, for the week ended Sept. 25, according to the Virginia Department of Health.

Masks act as a barrier to germs that spread through the respiratory route, according to Noelle Bissell, health director for the New River Health District. Wearing a mask indoors, along with avoiding crowded and poorly ventilated places, are multi-layered approaches to controlling the spread of COVID-19, she said.

“Let’s do the things that work,” said Bissell during a meeting with the news media on Sept. 27.

As for total COVID-19 cases in the New River Valley, “universities are not contributing significantly to our case numbers,” Bissell said.

Virginia Tech continues to monitor and report positive COVID-19 cases, as well as its vaccinated population, via two online dashboards.

Overall, the university’s high coronavirus vaccination rates and the campus community’s willingness to adhere to public health guidelines are the reasons that Virginia Tech can operate as it has this semester, Mulhare said.

“We’re seeing the benefit of what we’ve done,” he said. “We’re just not to a point where we can change the course we are currently on. Virginia Tech is constantly reevaluating the data and will adjust mitigation strategies when possible.”

The university continues to test unvaccinated students and employees regularly for COVID-19.

Oct. 1 is the deadline for employees to either receive a vaccine and report that information or file for a vaccine exemption.

Aside from the coronavirus, health officials expect cases of the flu to be higher this year than last year. That’s based on the flu season in the southern hemisphere, which tracks similarly to the United States, Bissell said. The health department is offering flu shots and COVID-19 vaccines, and individuals can receive both at the same time.

Virginia Tech is hosting several flu shot clinics for students and employees. The first will be held on Oct. 6 at Rec Sports fieldhouse.

Read more about other flu shot clinics planned.

By Jenny Kincaid Boone

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