Administrators and public health experts projected confidence and optimism for Columbia’s return to campus this fall in the most recent University Life Forum. 

Columbia’s Office of University Life hosted another installment in its University Life Forum series this past Thursday, inviting University faculty and administrators to provide details on Columbia’s impending return to in-person education this September. Included in the discussion were Drs. Donna Lynne, Senior Vice President and CEO of Columbia Doctors; Melanie J. Bernitz, Senior Vice President for Columbia Health; Wafaa El-Sadr, University Professor of Epidemiology and Medicine, director of ICAP, and director of the Global Health Initiative at the Mailman School of Public Health; and Julie Kornfeld, Vice Provost for Academic Programs and Associate Professor of Epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health. Panelists gave prepared remarks and answered questions from the audience, which were moderated by forum host Dr. Joseph Defraine Greenwell, Vice President for Student Affairs in University Life. 

After an introduction from Greenwell, Lynne opened the forum by reiterating that Columbia is committed to a full in-person return for the Fall 2021 semester. She drew attention to the different epidemiological situations in New York City versus the country at large, primarily with respect to vaccination rates. She said University policy has been and will continue to be based on the high efficacy and safety of the vaccine as the primary safeguard against COVID-19, as opposed to non-pharmaceutical interventions such as masking and social distancing. This logic, Lynne said, led to the University’s decision to implement a vaccine mandate. In order to return to campus in the fall, all students, faculty, and staff must receive a World Health Organization-approved vaccine by August 2. If students have received a vaccine that is not WHO-approved, Lynne revealed that those students will be revaccinated with a WHO-approved shot upon arriving in New York. Lynne also added that on June 25, Governor Andrew Cuomo instituted a requirement for unvaccinated travelers arriving from international destinations to quarantine and submit a COVID-19 test. 

Bernitz then spoke about the Reopen CU app, advising that it will become “like brushing your teeth in the morning” for students not yet acquainted with it. She then went on to speak about the University’s upcoming travel and testing policies. The University will require a gateway PCR test, regardless of vaccination status, for all students who have not accessed campus thus far in 2021. Fully vaccinated students arriving from domestic or international locations will not face any domestic travel restrictions or building access restrictions afterward, even while awaiting test results. Students arriving from outside the United States are required to test three days prior to arriving and three days after arriving on campus, regardless of vaccination status; if they are unvaccinated, they must quarantine for seven days if tested on days three to five or they must quarantine for ten days without a test. The second of these two tests can count as a gateway test, Bernitz added. All students, regardless of vaccination status, will continue to be subject to random testing, as has been the case for vaccinated students in residence for Summer B.

Bernitz then described the medical and religious exemption request process for the vaccine. Requests will be reviewed by an expert panel, she said, and simply submitting a request does not guarantee an exemption. She then went on to speak about the state of non-pharmaceutical interventions on campus. Starting August 3, fully vaccinated students will no longer be required to socially distance, either indoors or outdoors, while masks will still be required indoors. Starting September 9, fully vaccinated students will then be able to shed masks indoors, with the only Columbia-affiliated area continuing to require indoor masking being CUIMC’s campus in Washington Heights. Outdoor masking for vaccinated individuals has not been mandatory since early June. 

Kornfeld then joined the conversation, adding that not only will in-person campus life and academics return for the fall, but that it will be “required.” She implored international students concerned about logistics for their return to communicate with their respective programs and with the International Students & Scholars Office. 

Greenwell then began to moderate questions from the audience. He first posed to Dr. El-Sadr a summary of multiple questions from concerned attendees regarding the Delta variant. El-Sadr reassured the audience that while the Delta variant is more transmissible than other strains of COVID-19, reputable studies on the Pfizer, Moderna, and AstraZeneca vaccines show clear effectiveness against death, hospitalization, severe illness, and even transmission caused by the variant. 

Greenwell then asked Bernitz some questions about the sequence of events for students arriving from international destinations. Bernitz said that for any student requiring quarantine accommodations upon arrival, particularly international students, they will be provided with a single room to complete their period of isolation, even if the room they will be staying in for the remainder of the academic year is a double. Bernitz then advised students who have received non-WHO-approved vaccinations to still upload documentation of their shots in the event that the WHO approves their vaccine prior to August 2. Otherwise, those students will be able to be revaccinated in the fall with a currently approved vaccine. 

Greenwell voiced audience members’ concerns about vaccine boosters to El-Sadr. El-Sadr responded that boosters are not medically necessary, required, or recommended at the present moment, but the University will reevaluate as time and science advance. She believes that if immunity from the vaccine naturally wanes with time, then a booster will likely be necessary; the amount of time for immunity to wane, though, remains unknown. 

Greenwell then directed to Kornfeld a question about possible virtual options for classes. Kornfeld advised students with such concerns to reach out to their individual programs and that in the absence of an official medical/disability exemption or temporary visa concerns for international students, the University does not promise a virtual option for students if they are merely uncomfortable with returning to campus. In addition, she recommended a possible leave of absence or deferral as a solution to this latter predicament. 

Lynne then chimed in that the University will continue to monitor the progression of the virus and does not rule out reintroducing non-pharmaceutical interventions on campus in the event that vaccine efficacy appears to falter. She also said the University will seek to avoid a return to remote education. 

Bernitz then reassured audience members that students’ health insurance plans and statuses have no bearing on their access to COVID-19 testing and vaccination. 

Lynne then responded to a question from Greenwell about the Excelsior Pass app that it is not recognized on campus due to concerns about data privacy and sharing with New York state. 

Next, Greenwell forwarded a question to Bernitz about return protocols for individuals who are simultaneously students and employees at Columbia. Bernitz replied that these individuals should submit all necessary information and documentation to the student health portal as opposed to any portals designed for University employees. 

Finally, Greenwell thanked the audience and panelists and shared that a recording of the forum will be made available on Columbia’s University Life and COVID-19 websites. When the recording is uploaded, you can view it here

Morningside Campus via Bwog Archives