Staff Writer Mary Qiu attended University Life Forum’s COVID update panel that presented both a broad overview of the present COVID situation and a snapshot of Columbia’s COVID policies on testing, future vaccine distribution, and maintaining student wellness. 

This panel featured: Dr. Wafaa El-Sadr, professor of epidemiology and medicine at Columbia and director of the Global Health Initiative at the Mailman School of Public Health, Dr. Melanie Bernitz, senior Vice President for Columbia Health, and Dr. Aisha Holder, counseling psychologist at Columbia Health.

Dr. El-Sadr started the panel by presenting both global and NYC-specific COVID data, noting specifically the COVID-19 disparities in health outcomes in NYC. Globally, she reported 100,389,150 confirmed cases and 2,160,850 reported deaths, with the top five reporting countries being the U.S, India, Brazil, Russia, and the U.K. In NYC, there have been 580,155 reported cases and 26,720 reported deaths, with an average of 5,000 daily reported cases and 73 daily reported deaths. The average positivity rate in NYC is now around 9 percent. Dr. El-Sadr highlights that the case rate, hospitalization rate, and death rate are all much higher for Black and Latino populations in NYC. 

Dr. El-Sadr also debunked myths about the vaccines currently available, noting that the U.S. has approved both the 94.1% effective Moderna and the 95% effective Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines for emergency use. She emphasized that there were no shortcuts in the COVID vaccine development and that independent bodies unaffiliated with governments and pharmaceutical companies evaluated the results of the vaccine findings. She noted that the side effects are mild to moderate, and the most common side effects are local, including pain, redness, and swelling. These effects are more common in young people as they have stronger immune systems. Severe allergic reactions are extremely unusual, with seven cases per million doses. In NYC currently, vaccines are open to phase 1a groups including health care workers and residents and staff of long-term care facilities, and some populations of phase 1b, including those over 65 years old, first responders, and some frontline essential workers. She expressed, with hope, that through education that more people will be willing to get the vaccine as soon as it is available. There has already been some progress on this front, as the number of people who have already vaccinated or who wish to get it ASAP has increased from 34% in December 2020 to 47% in January 2021. She believed that as we continue to educate and inform, rather than demonize, those who have reservations about the vaccine, this percentage will continue to increase. 

Back at Columbia, Dr. Melanie Bernitz informed us that Columbia has been doing better than New York City as a whole, with a total of 126,031 tests conducted and a cumulative 0.41% positivity rate. Columbia is continuing the same compact as last semester, requiring daily attenuation, face covering, 6 feet distance apart, and staying home when feeling sick.

There are now two testing centers, one in Morningside Heights and one at the Columbia Medical Center. Dr. Bernitz reminded us that those with symptoms should NOT get tested at these centers and rather should reach out to campus student health services to be tested by a clinician. The gateway test is required for all in order to access campus, and the surveillance program requires everyone living on campus to get tested twice weekly, strongly recommends everyone accessing campus to test once weekly, and randomly samples 10% of the population weekly. 

How does contact tracing work? Anyone who is diagnosed with COVID will be interviewed by the COVID Contact team to trace those who have come into close contact (within six feet for over 10 minutes in a single instance or within six feet for a cumulative time of at least 15 minutes within a 24-hour period). Without revealing the identity of the person diagnosed with COVID-19, the team asks the people exposed to self-quarantine for 10 days. In response to one student who asked why the University decided to open Dodge and hybrid classes when the positivity rate has increased, Dr. Bernitz responded that classrooms and Dodge are heavily regulated with limited capacity, reporting zero classroom transmission and that most of the transmission comes from social interactions.

Understandably, students have many questions about the Columbia vaccine distribution plan but Dr. Bernitz did not go into detail about said plan. She only assured the audience that ”we have a plan, and that when the supply chain improves and we get an allocation, we will offer a COVID-19 vaccine to our population.” She reminded us, however, that even after vaccination, the same safety measures will stay for at least a while. 

In terms of holding students accountable, there are low-level (e.g. not wearing masks properly) and high level violations (e.g. holding parties) and they can result in a variety of educational and disciplinary actions, including restriction or removal from Columbia housing, with a dean’s discipline process.

The final part of the event focused on building resiliency with Dr. Holder, who recommends maintaining a daily routine, adhering to a consistent sleep schedule, limiting news about COVID, allowing for creativity and flexibility in daily routine, and connecting with the community despite physical distance. It is especially important to establish a consistent time dedicated to socializing safely as it gives us something to look forward to and seize control at a time when we don’t have much of it.

Image via Columbia Student Life