The University of Michigan updated its emergency response protocol to COVID-19 on May 12 and 13 following the expiration of the federal COVID-19 public health emergency on May 11. The changes, which have been called “a new phase” by U-M administration, will apply equally to faculty, staff and students at the University.
In an interview with The Michigan Daily, Robert Ernst, executive director of the University Health Service, said the new response was intended to emphasize individual responsibility while taking into account new knowledge of and experience with COVID-19.
“I think we’re at a time where we have a lot more understanding about the infection (and) we have more tools to protect ourselves,” Ernst said. “We’ve actually shifted more to systems for individual risk assessment, and then made folks aware of what tools they have to protect themselves. I think that the emergence of community immunity through both prior infection as well as vaccination has been an important consideration (for our response), as have been the emergence of better treatments and a lot better information.”
The University’s new phase primarily repeals some emergency health decisions made at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, including free COVID-19 healthcare and emergency paid time off for faculty and staff. Students and faculty covered by university health insurance will now be charged co-pays for services related to COVID-19. The University also closed its Community Sampling and Tracking Program as part of the new phase.
Ernst said he is proud of the measures the University took to provide support to faculty and staff at the height of the pandemic, including implementing additional paid time off for any employees who contracted COVID-19.
“I was extremely proud of this place, by the way it took care of its employees,” Ernst said. “When I say take care of them, I mean (take) care of their livelihoods, and (we) protected a lot of jobs. The nature of the work changed a lot, but our institution created systems to be accommodating to the people who work here, because we care about the people who work here. Some of these COVID-specific time accounting mechanisms were part of that strategy.”
Ernst said students living in residence halls on campus next year will still be required to be both vaccinated and boosted for COVID-19. Ernst said the University views dormitories as the most likely locations for new outbreaks due to student difficulty with self-isolating after a COVID-19 diagnosis.
“We know that while we’re at a different phase of the pandemic, where the very serious complications from COVID-19 are fortunately very different now, we do believe that the high-density residential communities are the places where we’re most likely to experience disruption if there were an outbreak,” Ernst said. “There’s still a requirement from the public health authorities to isolate for a period of time after being diagnosed with COVID-19 (and) that’s particularly challenging if you’re a student living in a residential hall.”
Currently, the University offers quarantine and isolation housing for students who test positive for COVID-19 and cannot effectively self-isolate wherever they are living. Ernst said while the University will continue providing this housing, they are also looking to reduce the number of units reserved for quarantine and isolation to increase access to student housing.
“(Q&I housing) has been an important part of our strategy,” Ernst said. “It has also had a cost, because those isolation spaces are beds that we haven’t been able to make available to students who might want to live in that community. We have been intentionally trying to see how many isolation beds we really need, so we can make those spaces available to students. It’s anticipated that going into the fall, we’ll be able to further reduce the number of spaces dedicated for isolation.”
While the University stopped requiring COVID-19 vaccinations for some employees in February, faculty and staff at Michigan Medicine and UHS will be required to be vaccinated under current guidelines by the Food and Drug Administration.
“With the more recent FDA changes around availability of the vaccine, there’s no longer an expectation for completion of a primary series,” Ernst said. “The current expectation and requirement for health care workers at Michigan Medicine and some other places is for new employees to receive a bivalent shot. That’s a relatively new change.”
As the University scales back its response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the virus has left the forefront of many students’ minds. Daisey Yu, a rising Public Health senior, said she does not often hear about other students contracting COVID-19.
“From my perspective, I don’t see a lot of people with COVID-19,” Yu said. “It could just be the people I’m around … most people in the School of Public Health probably practice good social distancing measures, so it might be from a skewed perspective, but I think the University isn’t treating COVID-19 as a major issue anymore.”
Yu said even though COVID-19 may not be dominating campus life at the moment, U-M community members should still be mindful about contracting and spreading COVID-19.
“I think … (as the) TV stops showing numbers about cases, it doesn’t mean that COVID-19 has gone away,” Yu said. “We should still be mindful.”
Since 2022, some health experts have said they expect COVID-19 to become a seasonal virus, like influenza or the common cold. In a March 2022 interview with NBC news, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said she expects the virus to be more active during the respiratory season, which takes place during the winter months.
“We may want to be more vigilant during some seasons,” Walensky said. “Maybe during respiratory season, if things ramped up, we would want to put on our masks again to protect both from flu and from Covid and from all other respiratory diseases.”
While cases of COVID-19 in Washtenaw County have decreased, Ernst said the University continues to monitor the virus, as it has not yet reached the point of being a seasonal virus
“It’s tempting to think that COVID-19 will become (a seasonal virus),” Ernst said. “It hasn’t yet, it’s still percolating along at a low plateau level, some of the lowest levels we’ve seen in a while, but we’re still seeing people present with COVID-19. So we’re staying vigilant for that and we’re tracking it. We’re tailoring our policies based on the current state (of infections). Our policies today may continue to evolve as that changes. If it does become a seasonal thing, we can adjust.”
Daily Staff Reporter Joshua Nicholson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.