Rutgers officials answered questions regarding the University’s plans for the fall semester and other major decisions at a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) briefing today.
Brian L. Strom, chancellor of Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences, encouraged students to register for COVID-19 vaccinations at Rutgers by using the University’s vaccine portal, which was recently launched on April 6, The Daily Targum previously reported.
“But I’ll remind you, vaccines are not yet available at Rutgers,” he said. “We were hoping we might get them this week — what happened with (Johnson & Johnson) obviously complicates that.”
Strom said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices decided on Wednesday to withhold its decision for now on whether to resume Johnson & Johnson vaccinations in the U.S.
The New Jersey Department of Health said on Twitter that it would arrange two-dose vaccine alternatives for vaccination sites. Rutgers was also scheduled to receive two-dose vaccines at the end of the month, the Targum reported.
Antonio Calcado, executive vice president for strategic planning and operations, said that exemptions from the vaccine can be requested through the Student Health Portal and will follow the University’s current health and immunization requirements.
The University’s decision to require vaccinations was released early in order to give students the time to consult with physicians and family to make an informed decision on receiving the vaccine, the Targum previously reported. Students who do not feel comfortable getting the vaccine may choose to take a gap year or transfer to another university.
“For the greater good, as a community of 71,000 students, and as our community goes out and meets with its extended family and the communities they live in across the state of New Jersey and even, in fact, the tri-state area, (this) is the beginning of our social and societal responsibility to create what is a safe environment for everyone,” Calcado said.
The duration of vaccine protection is currently unknown, but it is expected to last for much longer than six months, Strom said. The vaccines have been effective against all of the virus variants prevalent in the U.S. such as the variants from New York and the U.K.
But even though students will be fully vaccinated, Rutgers will continue to conduct COVID-19 testing on a regular basis as well as mask mandates, social distancing and disinfection of spaces as a safety precaution and to follow public health guidelines, Calcado said.
“I don’t want anyone to think that (COVID-19) will be gone in September,” he said. “Numbers show that it kills people, and yes, it kills people between the ages of 18 and 25.”
Some studies show this age group is currently the most affected by hospitalizations, death and transmission, Calcado said. The Targum previously reported an increase in the hospitalization of younger individuals in March, including a 31 percent increase for individuals ages 20 to 29.
He said herd immunity within the U.S. or other countries is not yet in sight, meaning public health guidelines such as occupancy limits, masking and distancing remain important in mitigating the virus’s impact until everyone is protected.
Calcado also discussed the University’s ongoing development of its plans for reopening campus for the fall semester.
“We are going to be back 100 percent, just not back all at the same time,” he said. “So what we envision for the fall is that there will still be some remote working, there will probably be rotational schedules (and) not everyone will be in at the same time.”
The bus routes for the fall semester have changed due to the need to create additional distance within the buses themselves, but the situation is likely to change as the University forms a better understanding of what in-person courses will be like, Calcado said. The overall goal is to make the buses as safe as possible.
The University’s current plan is to reduce the number of routes from nine to six and to utilize fewer stops in hopes of making buses less crowded, reducing fuel consumption, increasing bus life expectancy and having buses arrive twice as often as before, the Targum previously reported. Some students did not support this plan and found it to be counterintuitive.
Globally, the U.S. is not at the highest risk level in regards to having a COVID-19 outbreak, with most of South America at a higher risk level, Strom said. With a COVID-19 positivity rate of 11.04 percent, New Jersey is still at high risk for an active or imminent outbreak, along with much of the Northeast U.S. The state has approximately 3,735 new cases per day, which is the third most out of the fifty states.
Most of the cases from the fourth surge throughout the U.S. can be attributed to both variants and people growing tired of public health measures, he said. Rutgers itself has been able to continue maintaining a low percentage of positive tests, though most of these cases currently come from the variants originating in New York and the U.K.
From April 4 to April 10, Rutgers conducted approximately 10,000 tests, and 48 came back positive for a total positivity rate of 0.51 percent, according to the University's Testing Program Dashboard. The positivity rate has been declining over the past several weeks, which he said was partly due to the University’s commitment to contact tracing.
“We continue to maintain the University as an island of health in a sea of disease,” Strom said. “The data are promising that we may be nearing the (peak) of the state’s third surge.”