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USF administration field questions about vaccinations, reopening plans in town hall

USF President Steven Currall, Dean of College of Public Health Donna Petersen and Provost Ralph Wilcox discussed vaccination options, campus passes and budget cuts during Thursday’s virtual town hall. ORACLE PHOTO/LEDA ALVIM

USF administration seemed hopeful during a COVID-19 town hall Thursday afternoon about eventually resuming normal university activity in the summer or fall as long as vaccination distribution and mitigation efforts go as planned. 

Under a Q&A format, most of the questions asked by students, faculty and staff regarded COVID-19 vaccinations on campus and the estimated timeline. Petersen said that vaccinations and the timeline that they can be distributed in are dependent on the orders of Gov. Ron DeSantis, but she is hopeful for a speedy process. 

“It’s in everyone’s interest to get as many people vaccinated as possible to help achieve herd immunity … which will allow us to reduce the transmission rate of the virus until it is something we remember fondly from the past,” said Petersen.

Restrictions in vaccine distribution continue to limit vaccine rollout for the USF community, but Petersen said the college is “working diligently” to overcome barriers.

Petersen hopes for all students, faculty and staff to be vaccinated as quickly as possible, but the number of vaccines delivered to the university in addition to the governor’s age requirement of 65 and older have hindered these objectives. She urged town hall attendees to attempt getting vaccines from other locations, including Tampa General Hospital, Publix, CVS or Walgreens. 

“Again, if you’re over 65 and you have particular health conditions, you might be able to work through a provider,” she said. “If you’re a USF Health patient, they’re also scheduling their patients. I would not wait for us. 

“There isn’t anything special about us or the way we’re doing it … we’re doing it as an agent of the county.”

The university sent out two surveys via email to faculty and staff. One survey was intended for those over 65 to schedule an appointment to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, while the other survey allowed participants to enter a queue to receive the vaccine when the eligibility is expanded to those under 65. 

“We have invited our colleagues from [the Sarasota-Manatee] and St. Pete [campuses], if they wish to be vaccinated, to come here. Right now, we were organized to administer the vaccines through USF Health Morsani Center on the Tampa campus,” said Petersen. “We are certainly planning, when the eligibility expands, to have capacity on those campuses.” 

Another major topic of concern among attendees was the eventual return to campus. In addressing this topic, Petersen said that she and her team at the College of Public Health are working on a permanent CampusPass for students who are vaccinated when the availability of vaccines increases. 

“We are working on a solution within the CampusPass system to allow people who have been fully vaccinated: either a one-dose or a two-dose vaccine, to have in essence, a permanent pass so that they do not need to go in and do it every day,” said Petersen.

In the meantime, Petersen encourages students to complete the Return to Campus COVID-19 Assessment, which creates a roster of those planning to be on campus at least once a week and triggers the daily symptom check reminder via text message. 

The Daily Symptom Checker has become a tool for the university to track symptoms of students across campus and facilitates case management and potential exposure. 

“It’s our way to know that someone took a moment to think about how they’re feeling, and if they might have been exposed,” said Petersen. “The Daily Symptom Checker now also allows people to self-report if they believe they may have been exposed, or they’re not feeling well or have been tested off campus.”

Petersen also highlighted the value of randomized testing and the management for every positive case, in addition to guidance for those who have tested positive. Doing so will ensure students remain safe on campus, according to Petersen.

“Our colleagues in Student Health [Services] tested over 3,200 students over a four-day period, and we did identify some positive cases [which have now] been isolated,” she said. 

For students who regularly visit campus, Petersen said “the likelihood that you will be asked to come in for random testing is increased because we’re going to draw a sample that’s larger than we did in the fall.” 

Currall said increased compliance with these types of risk mitigation efforts will be paramount in lessening the severity of cases on campus.

Despite the heavy focus on the coming spring and summer semesters, Currall fielded a question about the projected long-term effects of COVID-19. He said “dramatic forces are at play in the university system,” including the conversion of 5,200 courses into online delivery formats. 

“So now the question becomes, ‘Is this an episodic or short-term trend that will revert back to what we’ve always done prior to COVID-19, or has this really changed the fundamentals and the landscape in terms of higher education?’” Currall said. “My answer is, it has changed things and it probably has shifted the baseline a bit in terms of the willingness and ability of universities to deliver instruction through digital technologies.” 

Although all campuses are equipped for online classes, Currall said a survey sent out to students indicated that the vast majority wish to return to in-person instruction as soon as possible. He said he expects a nearly full return to campus in the coming years. 

“I suspect that one year, two years, four years from now, the baseline will have shifted … we are inclined to make a fundamental shift in the way that we deliver instruction in favor of much more reliance on digital technologies,” he said. “We think there’s still something special about the residential and in-person experience.” 

A point of concern for many faculty members in the chatbox was the status of the College of Education (COE) within the proposed cuts, but there was minimal information given by Provost Ralph Wilcox on this front. 

“All colleges across the University of South Florida will be expected to do their part in fulfilling our collective role as … sound fiscal stewards of state investment,” Wilcox said. “The COE has planned for a recurring reduction to their budget effective July 1 as part of their contribution to the 8.5% reduction that we have been asked to plan for by the Board of Governors, so there will be no impact on other colleges.” 

On all fronts, Currall, Petersen and Wilcox seemed optimistic about an eventual return to normalcy on campus. 

“If we continue to take personal responsibility for our actions, especially in this final push of the pandemic, we will prevail and reach that new equilibrium,” Currall said.