College Prepares for Spring Vaccination Campaign, Urges Caution as COVID-19 Variants Spread

Students+are+required+to+show+green+health+passes+to+dining+employees+as+part+of+new+COVID-19+precautions+implemented+for+the+spring+semester.

Madison Olsen

Students are required to show green health passes to dining employees as part of new COVID-19 precautions implemented for the spring semester.

As students schlepped their belongings into dorm rooms this week, moving in for their third semester impacted by COVID-19, new developments in the pandemic have been cause for both hope and concern. The College is preparing to inoculate nearly 3,000 students and employees against the virus this spring. Meanwhile, senior administrators urge the campus community to be more careful than ever as new, more transmissible coronavirus variants spread across Ohio.

 

A More Transmissible Strain in Northeast Ohio

In late January, University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center found multiple emerging COVID-19 variants — including the more infectious U.K. variant — in samples from Northeast Ohio patients dating as far back as December 2020. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention expect that the U.K. variant will become the dominant strain in the U.S. by March.

“If you ask me about the thing that I’m most concerned about this year in the context of COVID, it is that,” President Carmen Twillie Ambar said of the new variants. 

President Ambar believes that increased community spread, in addition to the new mutations, could mean more cases this semester. 

“I’m happy to be proven wrong, but I don’t think we can expect the types of numbers that we had last term in terms of zero, zero, zero, zero, zero, for multiple weeks,” President Ambar said. “Community spread is such that I think that may be unrealistic. I think we’re going to have to maybe accept that we may have some positive tests that show up.”

This semester, the College plans to administer rapid tests in addition to its other coronavirus mitigation strategies. 

“When students are symptomatic, they will get a rapid test,” President Ambar said. “Getting them into quarantine quickly, I think, will help with this new strain.”

In the event that there is a COVID-19 outbreak, COVID-19 Campus Health Coordinator Katie Gravens explained that the College has a team of people prepared to act. 

“We have a plan ready if the numbers go up,” she said. “We have a group from Mercy Health, the health department, Student Health, and myself that will be meeting regularly to look at what’s going on — to look at where the virus is presenting itself — so that if we need additional measures, we can take them.”

In light of the new variants, President Ambar is considering double-masking as an extra precaution. 

“I am probably going to add to my own personal practice both my regular mask and then my medical mask as well,” President Ambar said. “While we haven’t made that a requirement, I don’t think that’s an unwise thing to do.”

In light of the new variants, the CDC still recommends the use of regular face masks, physical distancing, hand hygiene, and isolation and quarantine to mitigate the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19. 

President Ambar urged students not to relax their COVID-19 precautions, especially given that Oberlin has only seen the virus spread when students were not complying with the College’s guidelines.

“We haven’t been able to trace any moment where, because someone was in a classroom together, transmission happened,” she said. “The only time we’ve had any challenges have been when adherence didn’t happen. That’s when we had these moments of, ‘Oh, I was in the room with this person and didn’t have my mask on,’ and that sort of thing. What I would say to everyone is that we cannot afford to be fatigued about this. Despite contrary viewpoints, this pandemic is simply not over.”

 

The College’s Vaccine Distribution Center

The College is in the process of seeking approval by the Ohio Department of Health for its application to be a point of vaccine distribution. Chief of Staff David Hertz explained that the campus community’s continued dedication to coronavirus precautions is paramount until the College can administer a vaccine and begin relaxing some virus mitigation measures. 

“We need to be even more vigilant than we were last semester,” Hertz said. “It’s going to take the work of our students, our faculty, our staff, and our vendors to really do that successfully. If we can do that this semester and get vaccinated, then I’m feeling much better about the outlook for the summer and the fall.”

According to Hertz, Lorain County Public Health informed the College that establishing its own vaccine distribution center could help bring the vaccine to the campus community sooner. 

The College plans to vaccinate students, faculty, staff, and vendors. According to Gravens, vaccinating the campus population will help LCPH take care of the rest of the county community. 

“Essentially there will be almost 3,000 people that we will vaccinate,” Gravens said. “So Lorain [County Public Health] won’t have to worry about us at all. They’ll be able to vaccinate other people. We’re taking care of Oberlin [College], and so that relieves the impact on them.” 

At the moment, ODH’s final approval has been stalled while the College waits to receive a back-ordered freezer. 

“It sounds like they just want us to have the freezer in place, and then they will approve us,” Gravens said. “And we’re hoping that will be here relatively soon. … Now, does that mean we’ll get vaccines [right away]? I don’t think so, just because vaccines are so limited right now. I mean, the Cleveland Clinic has no vaccine appointments right now. We don’t know how quickly we will receive it, but we want to have all the processes in place so that as soon as we receive it, we can begin an administration process.”

Becoming a vaccine distribution center requires an immense amount of logistical coordination — from acquiring extensive temperature-monitoring equipment to coordinating with Mercy Health staff and ODH. 

“There’s a lot that goes into putting a shot in someone’s arm,” Hertz said. 

Dave Covell, Lorain County’s public health commissioner, expects that college-aged students could begin to receive the vaccine sometime in May, while Gravens has heard that the timing could be even sooner. 

“The health department told us they thought we would likely be vaccinating students by April or May,” Gravens said. “I think part of that depends on the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which will be coming up for emergency use authorization relatively soon. They hope that will transform how available vaccines are.”

While the College required the campus population to get a flu shot this year, it will not require people to get a coronavirus vaccine. 

“This will be highly recommended,” Hertz said. “This is different than a flu shot that’s been given for decades. We understand that, but we do anticipate high percentages of our faculty and staff will get it, and also high percentages of our student population.”

Once most students and employees are vaccinated, campus life can begin to open up again. 

“This is going to allow campus to begin to return to what was known in the past,” Gravens said. “If we get people vaccinated, we don’t have to have as many restrictions, and that’s our goal — is to let students begin to have a full experience again.”