Approaching the two-year mark of COVID-19, Virginia Tech continues to rely on data, science to make critical decisions
Editor's note: At the time of publish, Virginia Tech still requires masks for indoor spaces.
Two years ago next month, Virginia Tech found itself — along with the rest of the world — fully immersed in a global pandemic with very little information on the nature of the COVID-19 virus or the impact of it on those who contract it.
Those early days were anxious and stressful, in large part because the path ahead was, at best, difficult to see. But in spite of that, Virginia Tech found its way forward through a sound, consistent strategy and an unflinching commitment to the university’s mission.
“From the start, university leadership was unified in their commitment to continue our teaching, research, and engagement mission even if the impact of a global pandemic would change the conditions under which we could operate,” said Mike Mulhare, assistant vice president for emergency management. “But in the days, weeks, and months that followed, we began to receive, collect, and analyze information from a variety of sources including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Virginia Department of Health, our local health district, as well as our own campus health officials, students, and employees, that informed and guided the many decisions we’ve made over the past two years in an extraordinarily dynamic and challenging landscape.”
Now, almost two years later, Virginia Tech will continue to use the science and data to addresses current and future COVID-19-related decisions, such as whether or not to require mask in indoor public spaces.
Early in the pandemic, and without the benefit of reliable information about the virus or how it could be contained, the university brought students and faculty home who were abroad. Spring break was extended one week to allow faculty to transition to online classes, and most students elected simply to stay home to complete their classes online. The spring 2020 semester ended with few students, faculty, or staff at any Virginia Tech location, and commencement became a virtual ceremony.
“Based on what we knew at that time, the only decision we could responsibly make was to encourage students and employees to study and work from home to minimize exposure and impacts from the virus,” said Mulhare.
When the next academic year began in August 2020, scientifically validated information about the COVID-19 virus became more available. The nature of how the virus spreads, for example, was better understood — in part because of research of Virginia Tech’s own Linsey Marr — and mitigation strategies were identified that could reduce the transmission of the virus.
The community was encouraged to wear masks, especially in indoor settings, and physical distancing protocols were introduced. Good hygiene habits like frequent hand washing, covering coughs and sneezes, and staying home when a person felt ill were effective against the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and isolation and quarantine protocols were put in place in campus residence halls and workplaces to slow the spread of the virus and manage operations.
As spring arrived, the promise of new vaccines began to emerge. The Food and Drug Administration granted emergency use authorization for three vaccines, and as they were made available to the public, including in our own community, research showed the vaccines were effective in mitigating the spread of COVID-19 and reduced the severity of illness of those who became infected.
Throughout these developments, a robust campus COVID-19 testing program validated these mitigation strategies and gave university leaders continuous and accurate updates on the overall health of the university community.
“Data provided to us, and collected by us, clearly showed that our mitigation strategy - vaccines, masks, testing, isolation and communication - had a significant positive impact on health of our community, and reduced the potential threat of overwhelming our local health care providers,” said Mulhare. “Our community rose to the occasion and embraced these strategies, all of which enabled us to continue teaching classes in either online, hybrid, or in-person modalities, and allowed us to maintain campus operations with modification so that we were able to successfully complete the 2020-21 academic year.”
With more than a year’s experience and data in hand, President Tim Sands announced in June 2021 our intent to offer a fully in-person experience for the 2021-22 academic year. To ensure that we had the best opportunity to succeed, all students were required to be fully vaccinated. We extended that requirement to employees in August. A booster requirement for students was added in December. With nearly 95 percent of the campus community fully vaccinated, the fall 2021 semester proceeded in-person without significant disruptions from COVID-19.
Today, as the university approaches spring break, Virginia Tech is in a vastly different — and better — place than two years ago.
In addition to a highly vaccinated community, decreases in the spread of COVID-19 in the communities surrounding the Blacksburg campus and other university locations gives the university growing confidence that it can sustain a state of low COVID-19-related disruptions through the end of the semester.
Consider this current campus, regional, and state health data:
- Reported active case numbers (employees and students in isolation) at Virginia Tech have decreased from 513 on Feb. 2 to 43 on Feb. 24 (source: University dashboard)
- The seven-day average of daily new hospitalizations in Virginia with confirmed or presumed COVID-19 has dropped from a peak on Jan. 19 of 556 per 100,00 to 143 on Feb. 24 (source: Virginia Hospital and Health Care Association)
- Zero severe (self-reported) active cases among Virginia Tech employees and students as of Feb. 24 (source: University dashboard)
- Average daily new cases per 100,000 in Virginia have dropped from an omicron peak of 219 on Jan. 13 to 25 on Feb. 24 (source: Virginia Department of Health)
- Seven-day average daily new cases per 100,000 in Montgomery County have dropped from an omicron peak of 139 on Feb. 2 to 27 on Feb. 24 (source: VDH)
- Average daily new positive tests at Virginia Tech peaked at 44 on Feb. 1 and has dropped to 2 on Feb. 24
“As the COVID-19 shifts from a global pandemic toward an endemic disease, Virginia Tech will continue to recommend the use of KN95 or equivalent masks in indoor public spaces, particularly for those who may desire additional personal protection,” said Mulhare. “Research has shown high quality, well-fitted masks are highly effective in protecting the wearer from infection.”
Though no longer mandated, the university will continue to recommend and encourage vaccinations and boosters. Vaccinations have proven to be the single most effective mitigation strategy against this serious disease. Should the virus continue to mutate and vaccines evolve, the university will encourage everyone to stay up-to-date on boosters. Students and employees are also encouraged to submit updated vaccination and booster information. Accurate and up to date vaccination information is an important consideration in future mitigation decisions.
COVID-19 testing will continue to be available on campus and in the community for the remainder of the semester. Members of the community are encouraged to take advantage of these resources to monitor one’s health.
The university believes that encouraging the continuation of effective mitigations strategies will help the university community maintain a reasonably healthy community for semesters to come.
“We know that thorough analysis of accurate information, data, and research can inform difficult decisions" Mulhare said. "It has worked very well for Virginia Tech these past two years, and will serve us well in the future should changing information and understanding lead us to alter requirements or recommendations.
“Either way, this university will be prepared.”