Texas A&M University and Blinn College will both start the spring semester Tuesday in the midst of the most recent local spike in COVID-19 infections and limited vaccine availability.
Saturday marked 17 days of 100-plus new COVID-19 cases, as reported by the Brazos County Health District. Shawn Gibbs, dean of Texas A&M’s School of Public Health and head of the university’s COVID-19 response team, said this spike in infections following the December holidays was expected.
An email to Texas A&M employees from Mark Weichold, interim provost and executive vice president of Texas A&M, states the decision to start without any changes to mode of instruction or start date was made after consulting with the health department and analyzing six months of data.
Richard Bray, Blinn’s director of communications, said Friday afternoon that the school will offer in-person, online and hybrid classes in the upcoming semester, as it did in the fall.
Leaders at the college felt confident with the “Back with Blinn” safety protocol system implemented in the fall, he added.
“We felt that thanks to the hard work of our faculty and staff, we did have a successful fall semester,” Bray wrote in an email. “Our primary message to students is that our faculty, staff and administration are committed to keeping students safe, and we continue to review our safety protocols to ensure they align with the latest federal, state and local guidelines.”
Gibbs said A&M began making procedural changes and plans in the fall in preparation for the spike in cases local, state and national experts expected to occur in January.
The most notable part of Texas A&M’s return-to-campus plan for the spring semester is required
COVID-19 testing of all employees working on campus, part-time student workers and the estimated 10,200 students expected to live on campus this semester.
The employees’ testing window ended Saturday, and students have until Friday to complete the test. The university has multiple testing sites and options on campus; however, it is not mandatory the test be completed at an on-campus location.
The only exception to the testing requirements is if the person has tested positive for COVID-19 after Oct. 20, recovered, does not show symptoms and submits the associated lab report, according to the university.
Students living off campus are not required to submit a test, but it is encouraged, and free COVID-19 testing sites will remain available to employees and students throughout the semester.
“Our goal is not to create a bubble on campus; our goal is not to make the campus COVID-free. That’s just not possible,” Gibbs said. “What we’re doing is we’re trying to find as many positives early in the process to reduce spread throughout campus.”
The university has not introduced any requirements for employees, student workers or on-campus students to test again during the semester, he said, but the university will be hosting “testing blitzes” about every two weeks. During these blitzes, testing capacity will be expanded to allow a maximum number of people to be tested.
In anticipation of the current spike, the university decreased the number of staff working in person on campus from 75% to 50%.
There is likely to be an increase in cases associated with people moving, Gibbs said, but did not anticipate a large increase from off-campus students due to many of them remaining in the community over the fall and winter break.
During the fall semester, he said, the university found spread of the virus in classrooms and office spaces was limited and linked most of the spread to small social gatherings.
“One of the most dangerous activities that we can do right now is essentially to share a meal with someone you don’t live with,” Gibbs said.
If data shows spikes occurring on campus related to specific on-campus residences or apartments, he said, the university can do mass testing of those locations.
“It’s about managing expectations,” Gibbs said about starting the spring semester. “I think at this point, no one believes we’re going to be COVID-free. No one has been COVID-free nationally. What we’re trying to do up front is really reinforce the behaviors that we know work — masking works, physical distancing works — but we’re also very aware that people are hungry for social activities, so really just encouraging people to do them in as safe an area as possible.”
‘The institution has not been given enough’
Gov. Greg Abbott announced Thursday that Texas had become the first state to administer 1 million COVID-19 vaccine doses; however, Gibbs said, how many doses Brazos County will receive with each distribution and when they will be delivered are unclear.
On Friday, an email went out to Texas A&M community members from university leaders regarding vaccinations, stating the university had been working to administer its 100 vaccine doses to faculty and students in health care fields.
“At this time, the institution has not been given enough vaccines by the state to meet all the needs of Texas A&M University,” the email reads. “As expected, early shipments of the COVID-19 vaccine went to larger medical centers first, which put Texas A&M at a disadvantage. In anticipation of this, we worked with our clinical partners to help vaccinate many clinical faculty and clinical students who work in those hospitals.”
Applications for the College of Medicine, the College of Pharmacy in College Station and Kingsville and Student Health Services to become vaccination sites have all been approved.
Nancy Fahrenwald, dean of the College of Nursing at Texas A&M, said Friday morning that A&M nursing students, staff and faculty will be among those administering vaccine doses to area residents in the coming months — herself included. She expected more doses to be available in the community in the next several months.
“It’s imperative that all of us as public health professionals respond to this call to action and that we act,” she said.
Fahrenwald said that she and other College of Nursing community members will continue working to provide equal access to vaccinations as the rollout continues, as their mission calls them to do.
“The ethics of vaccination require us to look at those who have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19,” Fahrenwald said, noting communities of color specifically.
“This is a global society, and our mission has to extend to people in neighborhoods that lack access," she continued. "We have to work together to provide support for rural and underserved populations, for the uninsured, for people who lack transportation, differing abilities, language barriers, [and] people who have had bad experiences with health care. We want to get the right message out.”
Even after receiving the vaccine, Gibbs said, safety protocols still need to be followed.
The vaccine does not go into full effect until two weeks after the second dose, he said, and has been evaluated for its ability to protect people from contracting COVID-19 only.