Though students have questions about vaccination rates, surveillance testing and the future of campus and COVID-19, Chancellor Randy Woodson is excited and hopeful about the upcoming year.
“I'm thrilled that we were able to get back on campus,” Woodson said. “And it's very clear in interacting with students, they're excited to be back on campus. I mean, it's a challenging time with the spread of the delta variant — but so far, our numbers are manageable, our quarantine spaces manageable. And so, I'm cautiously optimistic.”
According to NC State spokesperson Fred Hartman, as of Aug. 26, 64.7% of students, 78.7% of faculty and 61.3% of staff are confirmed as vaccinated. Faculty and staff are being encouraged to get vaccinated if they have not already.
“We're targeting all of our employees with messaging going out constantly, every time they log into their system for everything from logging their hours at work, to signing up for benefits, etc., it starts with a message about vaccination,” Woodson said. “And obviously, our testing policy is designed to make sure that those that are not vaccinated, we know what's happening there. So the numbers are increasing dramatically.”
Students, staff and faculty who are not vaccinated are required to submit to weekly surveillance testing. According to Woodson, surveillance testing is a critical component of knowing where the campus stands as it returns to in-person classes.
“People ask me, ‘What's the big difference between this fall and last fall?’” Woodson said. “There are two big differences. The first is we have life-saving vaccines that we really want everyone to take advantage of. But the second big difference is we've built our own testing facility and we have much, much more testing capability. At least through the last two weeks, we've been averaging somewhere around 1500 to 2500 tests every day, and that is just critical for us to know how pervasive the virus is on campus and how to keep our community safe.
In the last 30 days, the total number of positive cases between employees and students has totaled 320. Cases peaked Aug. 24 with 49 positive cases reported that day, but have since fallen to give NC State a seven day rolling average of nine positives per day.
While administration has high hopes for the semester, this next week is going to be a very important indicator of how being back in-person has affected campus.
“This will be a critical week, because, we've been back on campus for two weeks now,” Woodson said. “The first week of testing, if you think about it, was really what people brought with them to campus, knowing full well that a lot of our off-campus students are here well before the start of the semester. But this week, we'll learn a lot about how student gathering events, those kinds of things are impacting us. At this point, the most we've had on any single day was 44 [student] cases. We have 15% of our quarantine space utilized. It looks very manageable at this point, but this is going to be a critical week.”
Due to an increase in vaccination reports being submitted, vaccinations administered and surveillance testing, there have been delays in approving vaccination statuses and reporting test results.
“Part of our challenge is that we actually require evidence of vaccination and we validate that evidence by cross referencing it to the Department of Health and Human Services registry,” Woodson said. “So it takes time. And one of our challenges is that the same people that are validating vaccine records are the same people giving vaccines and the same people overseeing testing. So Dr. Casani and her team are very, very busy, and we have a bit of a backlog of records that we've got to verify. So the numbers are improving, though dramatically.”
Though Woodson is hopeful, many professors do not share the same outlook, and the process to move classes online is not easy; being uncomfortable is not reason enough for a professor to move a class online.
“We have a process where faculty can request to move a class online,” Woodson said. “If it's [that] they're not comfortable, that's not going to go online. But if they have health issues that clearly make them more vulnerable, or they have challenges at home, for example, with immunocompromised individuals at home, those have been the examples where we've shifted classes to online. But well over 80% of all classes are face to face. And we've had, actually, in the last week, very few requests come in. But we do have a formal process to go through that goes through the department head, the dean and then up to the registrar and the provost’s office for review.”
The next week is critical to see how the delta variant will affect NC State, and Woodson said he is grateful that most students are adhering to University guidelines on campus.
“The modelers tell us, for North Carolina, that we're likely to peak in terms of the community spread of delta within the next five to 10 days,” Woodson said. “Whether that's true for campus or not, remains to be seen, but again, we're cautiously optimistic. We believe we have, well, we know we have the policies in place to know what's happening. Students are doing a phenomenal job of adhering to policies wearing masks indoors. Yes, there are exceptions that we all hear about, but by and large, I'm just so proud of our students and their compliance for our rules, which are designed to keep us all safe.”
Woodson said he is grateful for how students have acted during these first couple of weeks back in-person and encourages students to continue to wear their face masks and comply with University guidelines.
“The main thing I want to say to the student body is I want to thank them for doing everything to continue to protect our community,” Woodson said. “Wearing face masks [is] the number one preventative treatment after vaccination. And so I hope people continue to take it very seriously and don't let their guard down. Because we've got a few more weeks, we hope it's just a few, of the challenging time, and we need to do everything we can to keep the campus open and operational for all of our students.”