Admin stands behind in-person classes, restricted social gatherings ahead of fall term
In a Thursday town hall, University leaders expressed optimism for term but left open the possibility of a more transmissible variant emerging.
Karen Lin, Contributing Photographer
In a Thursday panel, University leaders outlined the layers of public health precautions Yale will take for the fall semester, designed to limit coronavirus infections to no more than five percent of the student body throughout the 180-day period.
Last spring, the University announced plans for a fall semester that would more closely resemble a standard term and said that the semester would be between “10 and 90 percent normal.” Since then, ninety-six percent of students and about 90 percent of faculty and staff are fully immunized against COVID-19. But due to the emergence of the highly transmissible Delta variant, the University has added in testing, contact tracing and masking protocols, as well as restricted social gatherings.
On Thursday, one day before Yale welcomed the first-year class to campus, University President Peter Salovey held a town hall with Yale’s health and safety leaders to explain just how typical the fall term might be and comment on additional COVID-19 possibilities for the semester.
“What we’ve really learned in the past year and a half is that the decisions that we make, as individuals and as communities, have a huge impact on how these viruses spread,” said Linda Niccolai, epidemiology professor and head of Yale’s contact tracing program. “It’s so clear that our individuals and collective decisions make a huge difference.”
The University’s current protocol requires in-person classes, in which vaccinated faculty members can remove masks if they maintain a 12-foot distance from students, as well as weekly testing for vaccinated individuals throughout the month of September. Unvaccinated individuals must continue with twice-weekly asymptomatic screening throughout the semester. Approximately three percent of the University population received an exemption to the mandate for medical or religious reasons.
Three of Yale’s public health professors created mathematical models of what public health interventions would keep less than five percent of the student body from contracting COVID-19 during the semester, Epidemiology Professor Albert Ko said. With the country likely at “the peak of the Delta wave,” the University decided to keep up its asymptomatic screening program for the first month of school and reinstated its masking policy to limit asymptomatic breakthrough spread, Ko explained.
Vaccinated students who are found to be close contacts of someone who tests positive must comply with masking requirements and receive three tests over a five-day period, according to Niccolai. They do not need to quarantine. Unvaccinated close contacts must be quarantined for 10 days.
Last year, the University found that outbreaks largely stemmed from off-campus gatherings, Niccolai said.
The University has also placed restrictions on gatherings. Before Sept. 20, gatherings are limited to 20 people indoors or 50 outdoors. Additionally, Yale has prohibited high-aerosolization activities including playing woodwind or brass instruments, singing or vigorous exercise indoors. Vaccinated students can eat indoors without distancing, but dining hall occupancy will be limited.
University COVID-19 Coordinator Stephanie Spangler also advised students to order takeout or delivery from New Haven restaurants until the city’s vaccination rates climbed.
Last year, none of the infection clusters were tied to classrooms or laboratories, Niccolai said. This year, the University is offering in-person classes for all undergraduates with no virtual option — even if students or faculty in a particular class contract COVID-19. Although the default Faculty of Arts and Sciences policy for lectures is that they must be recorded, that is not the case for seminars, due to privacy reasons. This means that some students in isolation for COVID-19 will need to keep up with as many as 10 days of class work without attending class.
“In most situations, if we do detect COVID among students or faculty in a classroom, classes would not need to be moved online,” Niccolai said. “But every classroom is different in terms of its size, location and space.”
A large number of clusters could lead to “extenuating circumstances” like last year’s online classes or more restrictive quarantines, she added. Contact tracers have added additional questions to their interviews to determine which on-campus activities are leading to outbreaks, Spangler said.
Like Niccolai, Salovey clarified that “no single public health condition changes our policies,” as the University receives guidance from the state and CDC, and adjusts its policies accordingly. The Public Health Committee chiefly tracks case numbers, hospitalization rates and viral sequences to monitor the state of viral spread and determine if a new variant is emerging, Dean of the School of Medicine Nancy Brown added.
Ko dubbed the query as to whether a more transmissible, more virulent variant that could escape vaccine-mediated immunity would arise the “billion-dollar question.”
“We’re certainly creating the ideal situation to test that question,” Ko said, noting that large swaths of the global population are unvaccinated and experiencing substantial viral spread. “I unfortunately wouldn’t be surprised if we’re going to encounter another variant, and especially one that escapes protection by current vaccines, within the next year.”
The experts emphasized that vaccines are highly effective at protecting against severe outcomes of COVID-19 including hospitalization and death. But, they said, there is still some uncertainty over how effective it is at preventing transmission of the Delta variant.
Director of the Yale Institute for Global Health Saad Omer explained that the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices will meet next week and will likely recommend booster shots as vaccine-mediated immunity wanes. The organization already advises immunocompromised people to receive an additional dose of the vaccine.
Yale Health is preparing supplies and procedures to offer a booster shot to members of the Yale community, Salovey said. Niccolai added that officials are also prepping for a flu vaccination push once this year’s flu shot becomes available.