Medical experts and University of Michigan administrators updated the community about masking guidance, the status of in-person teaching and procedures for quarantining and reporting booster shots at the Campus COVID-19 Briefing on Friday.
University President Mark Schlissel also addressed questions about the University’s decision not to shift to a remote semester, saying classrooms have remained safe and promoting the benefits of in-person learning for learning and mental health. Schlissel also clarified a comment he made in a recent interview with The Michigan Daily, in which he said it is likely most people will end up contracting COVID-19.
“We won’t get, it seems, to herd immunity,” Schlissel said. “So the goal really is to slow down spread to protect our health care capacity, to diminish severity by vaccination — severity of illness is way lower in vaccinated and boosted persons — particularly to protect those who are particularly vulnerable to a bad outcome … but also to begin prioritizing the things we do in our lives that have high value but some degree of unavoidable risk.”
Robert Ernst, associate vice president of Student Life for Health and Wellness, described the current conditions in the state of Michigan with regard to the omicron surge, noting the record-high number of cases and the stress placed on medical systems across the state and country.
Ernst said the high case counts in Washtenaw County are likely due to the robust testing conducted by the University through its Community Sampling and Tracking Program and University Health System testing programs in addition to the return of students for the winter semester.
“Washtenaw County is doing far more testing than any other county in the state right now,” Ernst said. “And I think that’s the main reason why it’s listed as having the highest case rate.”
Preeti Malani, the University of Michigan chief health officer, said the high number of cases on campus is putting a burden on the Michigan Medicine health system. But Malani also said she believes we are learning to manage and live with the virus more effectively.
“In some ways, it’s very alarming, but in many ways, we’ve made so much progress, and our systems need to catch up,” Malani said. “Something that was said in one of our planning meetings earlier this week that resonates with me is that ‘We don’t have a system problem, we have a volume problem right now.’”
Malani recommended people wear N95 and KN95 masks to best protect themselves and others, referencing the University’s new initiative of giving away N95 masks at CSTP testing sites.
“This is a good time to ditch the single-ply cloth mask,” Malani said.
Susan Collins, University provost and executive vice president for Academic Affairs, reaffirmed the University’s commitment to in-person instruction but urged professors to be flexible and make decisions in alignment with the quarantine or sickness status of themselves and their students.
“It may well be preferable to teach remotely than trying to reschedule, for example,” Collins said.
Collins also confirmed the University would not return to the grading system used in the 2020-21 school year, which allowed students to have their grades displayed as “Pass” or “No Record COVID” instead of letters. The Central Student Government passed a resolution in support of the policy’s reinstatement on Tuesday. Collins suggested students reach out to academic advisors and other University resources for academic support, if needed.
Martino Harmon, vice president of Student Life, addressed what he described as “misinformation” related to quarantine and isolation housing, stating that students’ mistakes with inputting positive tests may have led them to believe Q&I housing was full. Harmon suggested checking the “U-M COVID-19 Data” tab on the Campus Maize & Blueprint website for accurate information on housing occupancy.
“Space remains available in quarantine and isolation housing,” Harmon said. “At no point have we reached full capacity this semester.”
Students living in on-campus residence halls and off-campus housing have reported long wait times in acquiring quarantine and isolation accommodations from the University, as well as confusion in policies since the start of the semester.
Jeff Desmond, the chief medical officer for Michigan Medicine, defended the hospital system’s recent decision to temporarily pause visits to adult patients as necessary considering the rising rate of cases, the highly transmissible nature of the omicron variant and the possibility for asymptomatic transmission. However, Desmond also expressed optimism about a possible decrease in omicron cases.
“It does seem like the rate of rise (in cases), particularly for southeast Michigan, may be slowing down,” Desmond said. “So we are very cautiously hopeful that we might be getting close to the peak of omicron.”
Daily Staff Reporter Eli Friedman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.