The Virginia Tech community heads into the spring semester with a full tool belt and a determination to work toward an in-person experience.

“We really need a combination of multiple tools. We know what those are now. It’s vaccines; it’s masks; it’s good ventilation; it’s avoiding indoor crowds if you are at risk or if you have symptoms yourself,” said Linsey Marr, the Charles P. Lunsford Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, during a public health panel on Thursday.

“We have those moving forward, and I think it’s prepared us well to tackle whatever comes our way,” Marr added.

An expert in the airborne transmission of infectious disease, Marr was joined on the panel by university leaders and health experts, including Frank Shushok Jr., vice president for student affairs; Bryan Garey, vice president for human resources; Mike Mulhare, assistant vice president for emergency management; 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 City and Alleghany Health Districts.

The group discussed the challenges of starting the new semester amid the regional surge of COVID-19 cases, largely due to the omicron variant, actions the university is taking to address those challenges, and measures individuals can take to help ensure their well-being.

Here are a few key takeaways from the discussion:

While COVID-19 transmissions have risen, Virginia Tech starts 2022 in good shape.

“Because we have a very high vaccinated community, we’re in the best possible position to start the semester with omicron right in our faces,” said O’Dell.

Along with the vaccine, O’Dell said it’s important for Hokies to continue to look out for the more vulnerable members of the population by helping reduce the spread of the virus through mitigation efforts such as masking.

Shushok said the high vaccination rate is one reason he is very optimistic about the university being able to continue in-person experience this spring. Vaccines and boosters, as well as reporting them, will continue to be required for students who do not receive an exemption.

“That has made a huge difference in our ability to operate, and I expect that will be the case this semester as well,” Shushok said. “And that’s why we do have a booster requirement for our students that remains in place. ... That is because we’re so committed to this in-person experience.”

The university’s COVID-19 dashboard will evolve to likely include some new metrics such as severity of illness, Mulhare said.

Vaccines and boosters are still encouraged for employees, though no longer required.

Earlier this week, Virginia Tech announced that employees will no longer be required to be vaccinated, report their vaccination status to the university, or participate in mandatory testing in order to be in alignment with executive orders from Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin.

“The requirement is no longer in place, but our commitment is the same. We believe in vaccines and boosters and we want to collect that information so we can tell the community how highly vaccinated we are,” Garey said.

Vaccination and reporting are still strongly encouraged for employees, as is voluntary testing, which is available on campus.

“We urge those that have been part of our testing program to continue to be tested, and we urge those who have some concern about their health to take advantage of the testing on campus,” Mulhare said. “It’s very convenient. I did it yesterday. It’s a very simple procedure. Results are usually back within 48 hours.”

Masking is still required on campus, and mask upgrades should be considered.

“We’re in the midst of a huge omicron surge, as everybody knows, so the chance that you’re going to be in a room with someone who is infected is higher now than it’s ever been,” Marr said. “We know that people who are vaccinated are stronger protected against severe disease and hospitalization, but they can still spread disease. So, in order to help us tamp down the surge … we need to have everyone wearing masks indoors.”

Marr said that while not all masks are created equal, any mask is better than no mask. She recommended people consider upgrading their mask to a respirator, more commonly known as a N95s, KN95s, or KN94s. These masks provide a higher level of protection than cloth masks and should not be washed in order to retain the charge that allows them to be efficient. A respirator can generally be worn multiple times until it becomes dirty or worn out, Marr said.

Mulhare said the university has already distributed 60,000 KN95s and plans to make another 100,000 available soon through a distribution process similar to previous university efforts.

“If someone needs an KN95 mask on campus, they’ll be able to get one,” Mulhare said.

Hokies are encouraged to consider their overall well-being.

“If you’ve been alive the past two years, it has been rough, rough, rough, rough on people and that’s on top of struggling before the pandemic,” Shushok said. “It’s been really hard for everybody, and it’s important for people to realize they’re not the only ones out there by a long stretch.”

Shushok encouraged Hokies to visit the university’s mental health awareness campaign, #VTBetterTogether and Hokie Wellness to explore the wide variety of available support. He also encouraged students to keep in mind healthy practices such as exercise, getting quality sleep, and maintaining a good diet, which can greatly aid mental health.

Garey said that while many resources related to overall well-being have long been in place for Virginia Tech employees, the need has grown during the past two years. He said there is an ongoing commitment to provide work flexibility as allowed by different positions to help employees navigate stress related to different personal and family challenges.

“We’re working hard every day to try and create more of that space navigate what is a very difficult time,” Garey said. “It’s a complex environment, we all know this. Everybody’s life is different and complex and challenging, so we certainly try to meet people where they are and work very closely with them.”

He encouraged employees to reach out to their individual Human Resource offices and Hokie Wellness to explore support such as Employee Assistance Program, which provides four free visits with a counselor, as well as help finding financial and legal consultations, and child and elder care.

Garey also said employees should be aware Virginia’s Public Health and Emergency Leave for state employees has also been reactivated.

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