Regina Sung, Photo Editor

As temperatures dip and COVID-19 case rates uptick slightly, the Yale community is looking to University leaders for guidance on what pandemic policies might look like in the coming weeks and months.

Yale’s COVID-19 guidelines, like those of universities across the country, have evolved significantly over the past 19 months. Midway through the fall semester, the Yale community finds itself in a strong public health position: 99.6 percent of undergraduate students are vaccinated, and vaccination rates for graduate and professional students, faculty and staff trail just a few percentage points behind. Positive cases in undergraduates have risen slightly over the past week, though, and as colder months approach, University leaders must steer the Yale community through another pandemic winter.

“We’re a community, and a community that has a very specific mission to pursue that’s rooted in research and scholarship and teaching,” University President Peter Salovey said in an interview with the News. “We are making decisions to try to create conditions on campus that maximize the number of people who are willing to help us pursue them and maximize their comfort in doing so.”

The News spoke with three University leaders and one professor about the evolution and future of Yale’s COVID-19 policies.

According to University COVID-19 Coordinator Stephanie Spangler, Yale’s public health experts monitor public health conditions and review emerging information about COVID-19 on a daily basis. They also provide updates and recommendations to university leaders based upon this surveillance, she added.

“We get data every day: testing data, vaccination data, if we have people in isolation, quarantine, data on the community, data on the state, national data,” Salovey said. “We’re very data-driven about this.”

Salovey also expressed a desire to maintain consistency between the University’s policies and those put in place by the city of New Haven and the state of Connecticut. Yale has listened “quite carefully” to guidance from federal agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration, he said.

“The bottom line is there isn’t a single measure that drives policy,” Salovey said.

“As close to zero as possible”: Yale’s COVID-19 goals

The University is aiming to keep positivity rates “as close to zero as possible,” Salovey said, noting that positive cases have been in the low single digits on a daily basis in recent weeks.

Still, according to the Yale COVID-19 data dashboard, case numbers have crept up in recent days. In the last seven days of publicly-available data, 15 students have tested positive, 11 of them undergraduates. The student positivity rate is currently 0.15 percent and the faculty and staff positivity rate is 0.33 percent. Earlier this month, the student positivity rate was zero percent.

“The goal has been to minimize sickness and absenteeism,” Dean of the School of Public Health Sten Vermund wrote in an email to the News. “We do not expect zero cases.”

Vermund said that completely eliminating the virus from the Yale community is “not realistic” because it would entail much higher vaccination rates at state, national and global levels. He noted that although the Yale community is very highly vaccinated, Yale affiliates are still able to request exemptions for medical and religious reasons.

Salovey emphasized the importance of ensuring the safety and comfort of faculty members in returning to in-person teaching, especially those who are older or who have preexisting medical conditions. 

Vermund called COVID-19 vaccines a “gift,” pointing to their efficacy in reducing transmission and severity of disease, particularly for Yale affiliates who are especially vulnerable.

“The right direction”: Yale’s next steps

“I can’t answer the question of when everybody will be able to take off their masks,” Salovey said. “But I can tell you, we are certainly continuing to head in the right direction here.”

Salovey noted that the rollout of booster shots and further clarification of eligibility will impact the University’s evolving COVID-19 guidance. 

According to the CDC, booster shots are currently available to Pfizer recipients aged 65 and older and those over 18 who live or work in high-risk or long-term care settings or who have underlying medical conditions. In recent days, FDA advisory panels have also unanimously recommended the authorization of booster doses for the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines.

Yale’s COVID-19 vaccine program is currently offering Pfizer boosters to eligible individuals, in addition to the initial series of Pfizer and J&J vaccinations, as well as additional doses of Pfizer and Moderna for the immunocompromised. The Yale program is prepared to offer Moderna and J&J boosters if authorized by the CDC, Spangler wrote in an Oct. 15 University-wide email.

Howard Forman, a professor of radiology and biomedical imaging, public health, management and economics, noted that as temperatures dip in the coming weeks, Yalies will spend more time inside, which can increase the risk of virus transmission. 

Forman wrote that an outbreak within the Yale or New Haven communities would have a “significant impact” on daily life, and that continuing to avoid such a risk should “remain a priority for the near future.”

“There will be a point in the (hopefully near) future when it resembles the flu; we are not quite there,” Forman wrote. “If there were an unmitigated outbreak and/or vaccine effectiveness waned substantially, we could be back in a difficult situation. We are too new to this to know if that is a likely or unlikely scenario, but it remains plausible.”

Mask wearing may become less essential in some indoor settings than others, according to Forman: libraries, for instance, are less conducive to extended conversation, and thus may not necessitate masking to the same degree as other settings. Increasing the frequency of testing could serve as a counterbalance to “any ill effects” of decreased masking, Forman wrote. The professor suggested that University leaders weigh the tradeoffs between various measures and how disruptive to daily life each might be.

Vermund expressed the hope that the University will be able to modify its masking policies when rates of new cases and hospitalizations are “low enough.”

“[I] think we should be nimble and flexible enough to use masks in certain situations and be willing to expand and contract that list of situations carefully,” Forman wrote.

The Yale COVID-19 Vaccine Program clinic is currently located at 310 Winchester Ave.

Olivia Tucker covered student policy & affairs as a beat reporter in 2021-22. She previously served as an associate editor of the Yale Daily News Magazine and covered gender equity and diversity. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she is a senior in Davenport College majoring in English.