Health Services prepares for potential vaccine in the future
As the University of Rhode Island nears the end of its goal to hold classes in-person until Thanksgiving, administrators reflected on how they reached this point and how the next semester will proceed if a COVID-19 vaccine becomes widely available.
Regarding this semester’s success, Director of Health Services Ellen Reynolds said that she was proud of how Health Services had adjusted and evolved to combat COVID-19, and was “pleasantly surprised” that URI had reached this point.
That sentiment was echoed by Dave Lavallee, URI’s assistant director of media relations, who also said that he was proud of the extra effort many URI staff members put in.
“We had a lot of people who stepped away from their regular jobs and put in extra time from their regular jobs to actually volunteer at the testing sites,” Lavallee said. “These are not jobs that they normally do, but because we needed to move quickly, people really stepped up and that was a real credit to the institution.”
The biggest challenge in containing the virus, according to Reynolds, was that many students who tested positive for the virus were asymptomatic. This made contact tracing harder, as Reynolds noted that without symptoms, students tended to be out and about more.
Reynolds believed that what helped the most was a deal that the University struck with the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts for large-scale testing.
“Their results come back in 24 to 48 hours, and we’ve seen it closer to the 24 [to] 36 hour turnaround, which was incredibly impressive and just what we were looking for,” Reynolds said.
For that reason, Reynolds was relieved that URI is on track to make it to Thanksgiving.
“The reason that it’s so important [for students to stay on campus] is not only for our students to have some experience, even though it’s different than a traditional experience,” Reynolds said. “But the other reason is that if we didn’t make it to Thanksgiving, it’s hard to imagine how we might come back in the spring because I’m not sure there’s going to be a terrific amount of things that are different.”
URI’s plan to combat the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring is similar to their plan for this semester, with hopes that students will return to campus, albeit with social distancing protocols still in place. One thing that may look different in the spring, however, is the implementation of a mass vaccination clinic, which, according to Reynolds, is in the planning phase.
Earlier this week a vaccine from drug company Pfizer has been proven to be “more than 90 percent effective” according to the New York Times. If the Pfizer vaccine is approved for the public and URI ends up using it, the University would face an additional hurdle of needing to hold multiple clinics, as the vaccine would need to be administered in a two-shot series. According to Reynolds, the vaccine would have two doses. After a first vaccine dose is delivered, 21 days later the second immunization would occur.
Reynolds did warn, however, that a safe, working vaccine from Pfizer or anyone else was not a guarantee for next semester, and that wearing masks and social distancing must continue to combat the virus spread.
Reynolds and Health Services are also looking at how to potentially store the vaccine, as there are additional challenges behind storing Pfizer’s vaccine besides spatial issues.
“It needs to be kept very cold,” Reynolds said. “I think that it would be -85 degrees, so that will be interesting to see what type of equipment we’ll need to be able to store it in.”
Even as the spread of COVID-19 in the state and the country gets worse, Reynolds said that URI was not a cause for the recent spike in cases across Rhode Island. On Nov. 9, 4.1 percent of the state’s COVID-19 tests came back positive, according to The Providence Journal.
URI’s positivity rate for students is currently under 1 percent, according to both Reynolds and Lavallee. Reynolds said that rates were higher among students living off campus and students in the Greek life community than the on-campus student population.
Lavallee noted that a major cause for hope was that Halloween weekend, traditionally a big time for parties on campus, was a bit more subdued this year.
“We just didn’t have the risk reports on big groups and you would have expected some of that on a Halloween night or a Halloween eve,” Lavallee said. “I mean, that’s kind of a normal time to get together. But we just didn’t see it. Our police here and in Narragansett reported that it was pretty quiet.”
While the situation isn’t ideal for both faculty and students, Lavallee said that he believes that the students he’s talked to have made the most of their situation.
Reynolds also believes that students have appreciated the work that URI has put in to keep students on campus for the semester.
“I’ve heard overall that even though the semester has looked and felt different than what they had anticipated or what they’ve experienced as a sophomore, junior or senior, that they’re happy that URI didn’t give up,” Reynolds said.
Reynolds did caution that we haven’t reached Thanksgiving quite yet, and that the University still needs to work to provide a safe environment for students staying on campus after that date.
“We are hoping that the students that come back after Thanksgiving are those students who need to be here, where this is the safe space for them to be,” Reynolds said.
Ultimately, however, Reynolds believes that URI is doing very well considering the spike of COVID-19 cases nationwide, and should be able to reach that target date set so long ago.
“Overall, I want to say colleges and universities are doing a really good job considering that we have probably the same population as some of the towns in Rhode Island,” Reynolds said. “The numbers are bearing out very well for us. I hope we can keep that up.”