August 11, 2021
Dear University Staff, Faculty, and Administrators:
As we enter the final weeks of summer, and prepare now in earnest for the arrival and return of students to campus for Fall, I hope you all are doing well.
I am writing today with some important updates regarding COVID-19 vaccination and mask-wearing guidance.
COVID-19 Vaccination Rates
As of Monday, August 9th, our data indicate that 75.5% of all campus-based students have been fully vaccinated and well over 85% of campus-based staff and faculty have thus far submitted information through the Benefits portal. We know that there are significant numbers of both students and employees who are “in process,” however we are aiming for 100% compliance with our reporting requirement (either evidence of vaccination, or request for medical or religious exemption).
Compliance with the State Department of Labor and Industries, as well as Governor Inslee’s Proclamation 20-12.4 (Higher Education), is dependent upon the full cooperation of Gonzaga University students, staff, and faculty. Supervisors and relevant departments will therefore be communicating directly with those who have not yet submitted documentation to ensure compliance.
Given the prevalence of the SARS-CoV-2 “delta variant,” Gonzaga University joins the CDC and the Washington State Department of Health in recommending that employees and students wear masks indoors while in congregate (group) or public settings, whether individuals are vaccinated or not. Congregate settings include classrooms, labs, meeting rooms, hallways, lounges and public gathering spaces such as Hemmingson, Foley, Woldson, Rudolf Fitness Center/Martin Centre and McCarthey. As with restaurants, individuals who are consuming food or drink in campus dining facilities/areas may do so without masking. Fully vaccinated individuals may choose to not wear masks in private offices or meetings of small numbers of people, as long as all attendees are comfortable with not wearing masks.*
(*Note: those who are not fully vaccinated must continue to wear masks in the work environment, per Labor and Industries directive.)
A Shift in Perspective
Along with many of you, I have been listening with concern over these past weeks to the constantly-changing information relating to SARS-CoV-2. The excitement and optimism with which COVID-19 vaccines were initially greeted by many has been somewhat tempered with the news that “the Delta variant” appears to be much more powerful and contagious than the original, or the “Alpha variant” – and that though relatively rare, fully vaccinated people can have breakthrough infections, and in turn infect others.
In the early phases of studying any new phenomenon, data is incomplete and inferences drawn from it can therefore be incorrect; but as more information becomes available, patterns emerge and the evidence for particular assumptions begin to accumulate. One of the realizations that I have had over the past several weeks is that we all probably need to shift our perspective on SARS-CoV-2, and understand that COVID-19 will be with us for the foreseeable future. One way or another, we all hoped for an end to COVID-19; instead, it is becoming clear that this new virus will likely be a permanent, continuously evolving challenge to public health and disease management.
Our Commitment to One Another
In light of this, what are we to understand? How shall we respond? One of the things about this community I am most proud of, and grateful for, is the commitment our people have to one another. Over many years I have consistently seen members of this community step up and care for those who are ill or suffering, or who have lost a spouse, child, or family member. It is this ethic of care, coupled with the value people hold in being part of a caring community, that makes Gonzaga not only the special place that so many find it to be, but also successful in achieving its mission – which is fundamentally a mission of hope, of opportunity, of optimism. We – a community of difference-makers – educate people to go out and themselves make a difference in the world.
This past year, members of our community were touched by COVID-19 in many ways. Some of our students lost a parent to the disease; some of our employees lost family members as well. Over 700 students contracted the virus and were supported by colleagues in campus quarantine and isolation facilities. In recent weeks, this ethic of care in the context of community has been exhibited in the significant numbers of staff, faculty, and students who have submitted documentation of their COVID-19 vaccinations, or communicated that they are unable to be vaccinated. As effective as the vaccines appear to be, it is the case that children under 12 cannot yet receive the vaccines, and fully vaccinated individuals with vulnerabilities (such as compromised immune systems) remain at risk.
More than anything, I hope that we – as individuals and as a community – continue to care for and support one another, listen to and be patient with one another, and remain open to new, creative ways of managing the chaos that COVID-19 has inflicted upon us. As a learning community, we must constantly be considering what it is that the coping and thriving in the face of this pandemic is teaching us.
As we come to better understand the Delta variant, the evidence thus far suggests several key observations:
- According to the CDC of this writing, approximately 36 million Americans have tested positive for COVID-19. Of that number, approximately 616,700 deaths are attributed to the virus. Though the positive cases and hospitalizations for a time were leveling off, they are once more on the rise across most areas of the country.
- About half (50.4%) of all Americans have been fully vaccinated. Washington state ranks 9th in the country for percentage of population fully vaccinated, at 58.35%. Public health officials striving to break the chain of transmission aspire to much higher vaccination rates: 85-90%.
- Scientists believe that the much-more-contagious Delta variant is now driving the recent surge in cases across the U.S., and is responsible for 93% of the current cases. Based upon hospitalization levels, it seems clear that people who are not fully vaccinated and at high risk for exposure are at greater risk for COVID-19 infection now than ever before.
- Unfortunately, it is possible for vaccinated individuals to contract COVID-19 (that is, to have a “breakthrough infection”). The percentage of such cases is thus relatively small – but the benefit of the vaccine is still enormous, as most individuals with breakthrough infections have relatively mild, cold- or flu-like symptoms that do not require hospitalization. Overwhelming the health care system is one of the greatest concerns when it comes to this pandemic.
- Concerned about incidence of breakthrough infections among vaccinated people, the CDC is recommending that vaccinated individuals wear masks while indoors to reduce exposure risk, and to break the chain of viral transmission. Having said that, the data clearly indicate that the vaccines are highly effective at preventing infection.
These data, and other insights and perspectives that will continue coming to us from research scientists, health care professionals, and public health experts will shape our institutional response to disease management in the coming weeks and months. I am very grateful to all those who have worked so hard to create our plans for Fall 2021. I am confident that – with commitment and diligent effort – we together can continue to succeed in achieving our educational goals and objectives while effectively supporting and managing the aspirations and educational activities of our students. Thank you for your commitment to your own and others’ health, welfare, and safety.
Thayne M. McCulloh, D.Phil.