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January 13, 2022

Last fall, during Parents’ Weekend, I heard from a dad who had three children in college — one back east at a small private college, one in the Mountain West at a large land grant university and one here at CMU. Effectively, he told me that we were the only university finding a commonsense middle ground between pretending that COVID-19 didn’t exist on the one hand, and locking our students away in isolation in their dorms on the other hand. The more I have reflected on his comments, the more I think this dad’s framing of the issue was right — how do we continue to manage trade-offs for our campus while remaining true to our mission?

In order to find the right approach for CMU, we need to continue to focus on two key questions: (1) What is our goal in navigating the pandemic? and (2) What evidence, data and science do we have to guide our work? This email is intended to address these questions and many more as we prepare for our next semester. As always, please reach out to me or anyone else on our pandemic response team with questions you may have.

Our goal since the outset of the pandemic was and continues to be preventing extra strain on the healthcare system here in the Grand Valley while we deliver an outstanding in-person education to our students — most notably those students who have not traditionally had access to higher education. 

Fall 2021 Lookback:

CMU returned to campus in the fall of 2021 as the Delta variant of COVID-19 was receiving considerable national news coverage. Alongside our Infectious and Communicable Disease Committee and Medical and Health Advisory group, and building upon the important lessons learned during the 20-21 academic year, we implemented a mitigation strategy that allowed us to respond to COVID-19 activity on-campus using a targeted approach that balanced the importance of maintaining in-person learning while working to prevent sustained campus spread.

Protective immunity was vital to understanding our approach and the protection conferred through both immunization and previous infection. CMU strongly encouraged students, faculty and staff to receive a vaccine and offered education and easy access to on-campus vaccine clinics. One of our guiding principles as an institute of higher education remained to teach students know how to think, not what to think, and provide critical information that fosters an understanding of personal and social responsibility.

The Data:

Protective Immunity

Our case counts throughout the fall term were relatively low, with an average campus COVID-19 burden of 0.4%. Of those Mavericks who did test positive, approximately 60% were those in the unprotected category. Our data from the semester further validates that reinfections continue to be rare on our campus (2.4%) and in our community. We also saw very few breakthrough cases (4.12%) in the CMU population. The level of projected protective immunity from both vaccines and former positives during the fall term resulted in much smaller peaks in case counts throughout the semester, meaning transmission was subdued due to increased overall protection compared to the Fall 2020 semester.

Campus Case Counts Compared to Last Year

chart-for-01.13.22-update 

It is important to note that, like last year, we saw no student/faculty/staff needing critical care in the hospitals due to infection from COVID-19. The Safety Team also continues to monitor mitigation strategies our team has deployed compared to other colleges and universities. These comparisons are not perfect as we implemented some mitigation strategies that they didn’t, and vice versa.  Our comparative analysis of other institutions revealed that CMU rates of COVID-19 were very comparable with others and saw increases and decreases in cases at similar junctures throughout the semester.

CMU’s Safety Team established outbreak thresholds, referred to as Red-Zones, that would warrant increased usage of non-pharmaceutical interventions such as masks, increased targeted testing and reduced on-campus activities. Throughout the fall semester, three Red Zones were implemented in athletic Mavilies and one was implemented in a non-athletic Mavily. Zero Red Zones were required to be implemented in on-campus housing or classrooms.

Our Policy:

CMU is providing three options for those returning to campus this spring: (1) Demonstrate proof of vaccination, or (2) Demonstrate proof of previous past positive COVID-19 or antibody test, or (3) submit to ongoing COVID-19 testing. Our testing strategy will remain focused on symptomatic individuals and those in the unprotected category. CMU will continue to conduct case investigations, be responsive to classroom illness impacts and continue a layered approach of COVID-19 mitigation strategies to include education on non-pharmaceutical interventions, universal precautions, symptom screening and testing.

We are strongly encouraging those in our campus community to discuss eligibility and recommendations for a booster with their health care provider. COVID-19 vaccines and boosters will be available at the vaccine bus that will be back on campus 1/25 and 1/26 from 9am-5pm. We continue to have N95 medical-grade masks and fittings available for the campus population.

Looking Forward

On Nov. 26, 2021, the Word Health Organization (WHO) designated the Omicron (B.1.1.529) a variant of concern. They based their decision on evidence that the Omicron variant had several key mutations that impacted how it behaves. The emerging evidence suggests that Omicron infections are causing milder illness than earlier versions of coronavirus. Based on data from South Africa and England, hospitalization numbers are lower than many had initially predicted and the virus did not evade all levels of immunity. We will be watching this data closely as we monitor the impact of Omicron on our campus, on our local healthcare infrastructure and in our community.

Although it feels like we face a similar situation as last fall, with uncertainty surrounding a new variant, we have more powerful weapons to fight the impacts of COVID-19 including more widespread and robust pre-existing immunity, booster doses of vaccines and two new post-infectious treatments that lower the risk of hospitalizations and death. We have different tools and therefore, we need different policies and approaches to achieve a more sustainable long-term future with COVID-19. This requires a shift from pandemic to endemic response as we learn to live with this virus as a more normal part of life.

To be clear, this shift brings hard decisions and unavoidable compromises and trade-offs — but this is nothing new for us. Minimizing the spread of COVID-19 remains an important objective at CMU. Additionally, we are working to minimize the other negative impacts caused by the pandemic. These impacts include educational disruptions and negative mental health outcomes for students. CMU continues to heavily weigh the benefits of mitigation strategies compared to the very real costs when we consider that severe COVID-19 is exceptionally rare in our population. Data from the CDC during the last six months show that those individuals 15-24 have 0.001% risk of dying with or of COVID-19. We understand that COVID-19 can lead to morbidity and mortality for a small percentage of vaccinated adults, especially those who are older or immunocompromised.

As an institute of higher education, it is our moral imperative to continue to challenge, educate, empower and support our students in a transformational education that will allow them to be our future leaders and problem solvers of the large scale challenges our society will continue to face. We do this by acknowledging that no one solution solves the dilemmas posed by the COVID-19 pandemic but rather a combination of personal and communal responsibility. There simply are no easy answers, only informed trade-offs. We commit to continuing to follow the data and to utilize critical thinking, reason and logic in our approach to disease mitigation. We will continue to be nimble and expand our lens of health and safety to include those things beyond COVID-19 that threaten the health and safety of our CMU population.

As always, we will remain in communication with the campus and parents as we respond in real time to any changes in the data related to Omicron. Please watch for additional invitations to join us in conversation on Facebook Live and in upcoming telephone town hall meetings in the days and weeks ahead.

Best,

John Marshall
President
Colorado Mesa University
970.248.1498 (o)