Published August 7, 2020
UB’s new health and safety guidelines for 2020 were the focus of a virtual town hall held Aug. 5 via Zoom.
“Together, We Are UB: A Virtual Town Hall on UB’s Health and Safety Guidelines” was hosted by A. Scott Weber, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, and Michael E. Cain, vice president for health sciences and dean of the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. Cain chaired the committee that developed the new guidelines.
Panelists included Mark Alnutt, director of athletics; Mark Coldren, associate vice president for human resources; Graham Hammill, vice provost for academic affairs and dean of the Graduate School; Joseph Raab, director of Environment, Health & Safety; Susan Snyder, director of Student Health Services; Thomas Russo, professor and chief of infectious diseases in the Jacobs School; and Jean Wactawski-Wende, SUNY Distinguished Professor and dean of the School of Public Health and Health Professions. John DellaContrada, vice president for university communications, moderated the session.
More than 1,300 faculty and staff participated in the 90-minute session, and more than 150 questions were submitted via Zoom chat and email. A recording of the session is available on UB’s Youtube channel.
In his welcoming remarks, President Satish K. Tripathi noted that “the health and safety of our entire university has always been our first priority,” and lauded the university leaders who guided the “comprehensive process” of creating the new protocols.
“Comprehensive in that our planning has involved faculty, students, staff and administrators from across campus and disciplines,” Tripathi said. “And comprehensive in that we have intentionally prepared for the challenges that lie ahead in every domain, including public health, university finances, enrollment, academic continuity, research and our overall student experience.”
Cain opened the session by emphasizing that the actions of everyone on campus will determine the success of the new guidelines. “Our guidelines, which along with a UB-wide health awareness campaign, emphasize personal responsibility and, importantly, include a pledge that I want each of us to take.”
The pledge requires everyone on campus to monitor their health, wear a face covering and practice physical distancing and meticulous hand hygiene.
Cain outlined other main elements of the guidelines, which include a voluntary but highly recommended seven-day precautionary quarantine for faculty, staff and students returning to campus, and taking a daily health screening via a chatbot before coming to campus.
During a wide-ranging question-and-answer period, the panelists addressed a variety of faculty and staff concerns, including the university’s decision not to conduct mass testing.
“I can’t emphasize enough the reason it’s so important to embrace these public health measures is because even if we did that mass testing on day one — of the 39,997 individuals that tested negative that day, well, on the next day a few of those might be positive. On the day after that some of those individuals may be positive,” Russo said.
“So a one-time testing is really of limited value. But if we embrace those public health measures we’ll be able to go ahead and protect ourselves,” he said, adding that health authorities, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), are not advocating mass testing at this time.
On the mask requirement, Russo said that masks “are the number one ticket for keeping everyone safe.” He stressed that members of the university community should choose proper masks, not bandanas or scarves, and that they should avoid masks with valves.
“Mask usage not only protects you if you’re not infected. But if you are infected and don’t realize it, it protects others. So it’s a critically important measure and really our best chance to keep this virus under control,” Russo said.
On the issue of ensuring compliance with the guidelines, Snyder said that “everyone must play their part.” She noted that polite, respectful conversations with non-compliant individuals should always be the first step in enforcement, but also said that repeat offenders could be referred to an online class about the requirements, or even potentially disciplined.
For help with initiating these conversations, Human Resources has drafted sample scripts to use in various situations, Coldren said.
Snyder also noted that there is a compliance policy for students.
Hammill said faculty members should “set the expectation from the beginning” by stressing the importance of following the protocols on the first day of class. He also said that although masks are the preferred form of face covering, shields will be available for lecturers who request them.
In the School of Public Health and Health Professions, where employees have been back at 40% capacity for two weeks, initial reaction to the guidelines has been positive, said Wactawski-Wende, who added that most people find the new protocols helpful at enhancing understanding. “I think these all will make us much more comfortable that we’re in this together. I consider UB to be a close community and I think we’ll be fine,” she said.
Similarly, student-athletes have been on campus for several weeks. UB’s Athletics Department is following guidelines issued by the NCAA for testing, and has educated students and their parents about the new practices, Alnutt said.
Raab addressed several questions about the safety of campus buildings. He noted that the custodial staff is now working three shifts daily, performing deep cleaning at night and doing enhanced routine cleaning on high-risk areas multiple times per day. Start-up kits of wipes, disinfectants and hand sanitizer have been distributed around campus, as well, he said.
The university is following CDC guidance to ensure that HVAC systems in campus buildings are clear of mold and legionella, and other steps are being taken to maximize ventilation in buildings on all three campuses, Raab said.
In addition, the CDC has provided a list of HVAC operating parameters to be followed, and UB Facilities crews are conducting an inventory of building operating systems to see what adjustments may need to be made. “We’re seeing what we can do and making as many improvements as possible,” Raab said.
When asked what the campus will look like when classes resume, the panelists agreed it will not resemble the campus of fall 2019.
Weber described a “robust process” of reconfiguring class schedules to reduce the number of people on campus at any given time, and said the university is mapping density at various locations on an hourly basis.
UB also conducted analyses of classrooms and took some offline, Hammill said, and seating capacity will be less than 25 students per classroom. The time between classes has been expanded to 20 minutes to prevent bottlenecks when entering or leaving a space.
Hammill said that at present, 43% of classes will be in-person or a hybrid of in-person and remote, and 57% will be entirely remote.
There has been no change in the university’s position on working remotely; employees who can should continue to do so. The goal remains to have less than 50% of personnel on campus at any given time.
Fielding a question about metrics that would be used to determine if the university should shut down and go to all-remote learning as it did in March, Cain said that the daily infection rate, the risk of overwhelming hospitals, the severity of individual cases, the number of seated students and the amount of available personal protective gear would all be considered. Weber added that the stance of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo would also be a deciding factor.
Other topics that were addressed included contact tracing, mass testing, the outlook for a vaccine and isolating students who test positive.
Questions that were not answered during the town hall will be answered in the coming days and weeks, and posted in the FAQ section of UB’s COVID-19 webpage, DellaContrada said.
There was one deeply unsatisfying attempt to address the question of systematic testing. The ostensible medical authority fielding the question pretended that tests had to be one-time only — if someone is found clear from a test today and is infected tomorrow, that somehow vitiates testing as such. This reveals a profound ignorance of the role of testing in an epidemic, which has a collective public health goal, not simply an individual therapeutic goal. The same authority pretended that money spent on testing would somehow have to be taken away from other safety funds — here, as usual, the UB Foundation remains the Fund That Must Not Be Named.
Town hall meetings are democratic institutions, not spin forums. In a town hall meeting of the New England variety, people get together to discuss things, in an egalitarian way, and then vote. In a public relations session, a group of managers gets together ahead of time to coordinate their presentation, maintain control of the discussion and avoid difficult questions.
This was an unskillful public relations session. It was not a town hall meeting.