Caroline Piotrowski 0

University of Manitoba Vaccine Mandate Open Letter

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Dear Colleagues,

We need no reminders that we live in unprecedented times. Since the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic on March 11 2020, it remains an urgent health concern that affects every facet of our daily lives.

Despite facing three waves over the past 17 months, rapidly changing circumstances are contributing to a fourth wave which has the potential to be even more serious. Based on recent and very sobering modelling released on August 24 2021, Dr. Jazz Atwell, deputy chief public health officer, summed up the current situation by remarking: “Delta variant is changing the game”. Cases are now rapidly increasing nationwide in large part due to this and other variants.

Earlier hopes that vaccination would result in a “return to normal” are now fading; there is growing evidence that vaccination alone does not successfully mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Recent studies in the UK have indicated that protection is waning over time. While vaccines reduce the likelihood of serious illness, hospitalization, and death, scientists are only beginning to understand the long term impact of infection, even on asymptomatic individuals.

On July 23 2021 the University of Manitoba proposed mitigation measures for the 2021-22 academic year that included the mandatory wearing of masks, limited class sizes to facilitate physical distancing and a staggered return to campus for employees (e.g., 40% back on campus currently; 60% in September; 70% by mid-October; 80% by mid-November; and 100% by January 2022) as well as reduced class capacity for students in September (e.g., 430 classes with a registration of 20 students or less will proceed with in-person instruction; 360 in-person labs will resume, limited to no more than 25, or to the COVID room-capacity limit, whichever is smaller; and large classes will continue with remote delivery).

In light of the critically important concerns emerging regarding the delta variant, the University plan is no longer viable. Recognizing some of the shortcomings of this plan, on August 19 2021 the University announced that a vaccine mandate will be imposed for the 2021-22 academic year with “more details to come”; however, a great deal of ambiguity remains concerning the nature and enforcement of the mandate, as well as other revisions to the plan. It is well recognized that successful mitigation of COVID-19 requires rigorous multi-faceted evidence-based strategies based on the most recent science available in order to be effective. To that end, we therefore publish this petition to indicate areas of concern and suggest additional specific protocols to ensure community safety. Furthermore, we ask for greater transparency and more explicit sharing of relevant data.

We, as professors, instructors, lecturers, and librarians at the University of Manitoba, call upon President Benarroch to address the following concerns in order to:

(1) provide more information and transparency about current conditions and policies,

(2) increase flexibility and adaptability of teaching staff response to changing pandemic conditions, and

(3) enhance robustness and comprehensiveness of mitigation procedures.

We are focusing on protocols for instruction, but we believe that similar concerns need to be addressed with respect to students and staff colleagues as well.

  • Provide more Information and transparency about current conditions and policies:
  • Increase flexibility and adaptability of teaching staff response to changing pandemic conditions:
  • Enhance robustness and comprehensiveness of mitigation procedures:
  • We propose the identification of clear metrics and guidelines for thresholds for COVID-19 case numbers and R0 levels that trigger a pivot to 100% remote work and instruction. We note that the Province of Manitoba has described “orange” and “red” levels without quantifying the metrics used to increase mitigation measures. We recommend that a shift to 100% remote learning and working occur well prior to cases exceeding the capacity of the Manitoba health system, as was the case in May and June of 2021 when R0 exceeded 10 and the rolling 7-day average of new cases routinely exceeded 300 per day. Based on recent modelling released by Shared Health, under the “extreme” and “severe” scenarios, daily cases are expected to exceed 200 per day by October 4 and November 4 2021 respectively with no positivity rates identified. We propose that when R0 = 5 and/or rolling 7-day averages for new cases = 75 that 100% remote learning and working be implemented immediately.
  • Create clear guidelines and examples of how the University is ensuring compliance of all community members with the vaccine mandate. It is currently unclear if students will be prevented from enrolling for or attending in-person fall or winter term classes if they have not completed the vaccine requirement by the proposed deadline or have been granted an exemption. There are also currently no guidelines to identify outside providers or community members who attend events on campus will be required to comply with the vaccine mandate.
  • We request transparency with exemption requirements for the vaccine mandate and the exemption process. For those who are not granted exemptions, we expect that any non-compliant person will be prevented from coming to campus in-person, including attending classes and events, as well as living on campus. Those seeking medical exemptions are required to attain confirmation from University Health Services, and agree to complete daily antigen testing and weekly PCR testing, as well as following all other required protocols.
  • Provide teaching staff with detailed information about the precise number (percentage) of students who are vaccinated in each in-person class during the period prior to the October 31 vaccination deadline. The current lack of actual enforcement of (and information about) student vaccination status renders a cornerstone of the current vaccine policy ineffectual. All teaching staff should be empowered to know their class vaccination rate in order to make informed decisions about shifting to virtual instruction.
  • Provide information on the actual ventilation and outside air intake rate, and method of air filtration in each office and classroom on campus as determined by an independent audit of all HVAC systems on campus by an independent contractor so that faculty, librarians, staff and students may fully understand the conditions in which they are asked to work, teach and learn, and so that appropriate accommodations (e.g. room changes, remote instruction) can be taken if needed for health and safety reasons.

For instance, it would be useful if the effective air replacement time, which takes into account both filtering and replacement, were disclosed for each classroom—particularly those in older buildings. It is currently unclear whether University building ventilation and filtration systems can significantly assist in mitigating the spread of an airborne, highly transmissible virus in these spaces even though classes are scheduled to return with reduced capacity. The University’s current HVAC guidelines and capacity should be more transparent.

  • In general, we believe that there should be broader criteria for electing to teach remotely beyond class size, which should include teaching staff with health concerns, and/or with unvaccinated and/or immunocompromised household members (including children too young to be vaccinated), and/or caregivers of immunocompromised individuals that may or may not live with them. Since a significant percentage of teaching staff have school-age children, it is particularly important that departments be able to respond nimbly and appropriately to teaching staff needs and concerns. Recent evidence shows increasing risk for pediatric contagion and rising pediatric cases of COVID-19 severe enough to require hospitalization. It is highly likely that rising infection rates in K-12 schools will lead to intermittent closures and/or online K-12 instruction. UM teaching staff must be enabled to expeditiously move their courses online.
  • We propose that the current staggered return to campus from September to January for employees be cancelled and staffing be maintained at current levels until further notice, and that reduced class capacity also be maintained throughout the academic year with the condition of increased flexibility and adaptability of teaching staff in response to changing pandemic conditions as outlined above.
  • We propose that all students, staff and faculty confidentially provide one time proof of vaccination in order to attend classes or campus events in-person; this proof will be stored in accordance with FIPPA guidelines. Similar to protocols implemented at the University of Winnipeg, a campus-access sticker will be affixed to any student or employee ID card once vaccination is verified. The card with sticker will need to be presented at designated access points to enter campus buildings or attend events. Those who are unable to prove full vaccination — or are partially vaccinated and scheduled to complete their vaccination — will be asked to sign a self-declaration form indicating that proof will be provided by October 31, 2021 and a sticker indicating temporary status will grant access valid until October 31, 2021. Once proof of full vaccination is shown, the sticker will be upgraded to full access. If compliance is not met in the specified timeframe, access will be revoked. Confidential walk-in vaccination clinics and individual health education sessions to address vaccine questions should be available on both campuses throughout the academic year. Disciplinary action should be undertaken for those who provide false vaccination information.
  • We further propose that all students, faculty, or staff coming to campus at the start of fall term on September 7 2021 who are not vaccinated be immediately tested for COVID-19, and continue undergoing daily rapid testing and weekly PCR testing until such time as vaccination is complete. This requirement exceeds the recent Province of Manitoba requirement for full immunization or regular tri-weekly testing of unvaccinated provincial employees who work with vulnerable populations. Given the relatively close quarters of some classrooms, labs and office spaces, unvaccinated and asymptomatic students, staff or faculty would infect others for several days if not tested regularly. It must also be acknowledged that among vaccinated students, staff and faculty, waning vaccine effectiveness over the course of the academic year may require regular testing in future.
  • All outside providers or community members who visit or attend events on campus must be required to provide proof of vaccination.
  • We propose that current protocols regarding adequate (2 metres) physical distancing and mandatory (3-ply) masks on campus be continued and enforced.
  • We propose enhanced mental health and resilience strengthening and recovery resources for all members of the university community, including expanding existing mental health resources and adding new resilience strengthening and recovery resources.

We acknowledge that these complex issues require candid and respectful discussions to resolve. We ask for a general recognition that those who articulate their concerns do so based on informed assessments about the risks to themselves, their households, and all members of the university community. We further acknowledge that, within the university community, COVID-19 differentially affects BIPOC members, 2STLGBQ+ members, international student and new immigrant members, persons with disabilities, and those facing financial pressures. Lastly, we acknowledge that other factors such as gender, age, caregiving status, and health status (e.g., underlying conditions that increase risk of serious illness) need to be thoughtfully and conscientiously considered in COVID-19 mitigation policies and practices.

We look forward to engaging the administration in these discussions as soon as possible so that we can have the safest possible academic year in 2021-22. All of us, the undersigned, stand in solidarity with our faculty, instructors, lecturers, librarians, staff members and students to call for implementing these policies and measures.

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