ACHA addresses vaccines, variants, burnout in new COVID-19 guidance

The college health association says multilayered strategies and adapting to conditions are key to success.
By: | December 8, 2021
Adobe Stock

The No. 1 strategy colleges and universities have in the battle against coronavirus and emerging variants is vaccination. That’s according to new guidance from the American College Health Association, which updated its latest COVID-19 Considerations for Institutions of Higher Education during the pandemic.

“Even though we’re close to two years into this, we are not at the end,” says Anita Barkin, co-chair ACHA’s COVID-19 Task Force. “The message is very clear and very consistent. Vaccination is the most effective way to reduce the risk of infection, transmission and severe disease. The higher our population or percentage of vaccinated individuals grows, the better off we are. The key strategy here continues to be providing messaging that decreases vaccination hesitancy.”

There are seven pages worth of best strategies and practices from the ACHA, including addressing masking, testing, international students, long COVID, monoclonal antibodies and the often forgotten burnout factor among health and frontline workers on campuses.

One of the variables it did address at the “11th hour” is the booster shot, which some universities such as Syracuse and Notre Dame have mandated for next semester. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, while encouraging all Americans to get boosters, still terms “fully vaccinated” as those who’ve received only the primary schedules (without boosters). And the ACHA is following that guidance for now.

“ACHA has not come out with a position on boosters,” Barkin says. “We are still looking at relevant scientific information, watching what the CDC says and how they define fully vaccinated. If they change their definition to include boosters, we may very quickly get on board with that. From the information we’re getting from members, schools are more inclined at this point to go with messaging that recommends boosters but does not require them.”

The ACHA and CDC do recommend that those who are immunocompromised or have chronic illnesses get the boosters. Aside from vaccinations, the Task Force also says institutions should continue to remain vigilant in tracking cases and reacting quickly when they occur.

“We need to be doing appropriate surveillance, both of disease prevalence on campus and in the surrounding community,” she says. “Decision points also should be based on the percentage of the population that’s fully vaccinated, the seriousness of illness that we’re seeing and the burden on local health care. The guidance provides a framework for flexibility for schools to determine what actions are most appropriate for local conditions.” That guidance not only includes vaccines and COVID protocols but also treatments such as monoclonal antibodies. “We discuss the opportunity in the document for clinicians who should know where this is being offered and how they can access those treatments if a student needs that level of care,” Barkin says.

Speaking of clinicians and staff who have toiled on campuses for nearly two years, the ACHA in its report says it is imperative that institutions allow them breathing space and recognize them for their work. “Burnout was the No. 1 concern when we surveyed our members,” Barkins says. “The long hours, the workload, and the stress are major concerns for student health-care professionals who are working frontline on these campuses.”

There are a number of creative ways to assist employees and keep them thriving in these key positions:

  • Boosting compensation, such as through raises or bonuses
  • Offering mental health days or flexibility for workers to unwind
  • Providing increased counseling options
  • Offering perks such as free dining, free tickets for families to attend college or university athletic events and free parking for a month on campus.

“It’s not just about lip service; it’s about it’s about demonstrating that appreciation in real tangible ways … clear and genuine recognition of the contributions that college health professionals have made,” Barkin says. “Resources are tight for many schools. But I think to the extent that you can provide people with additional compensation sends a strong signal that there is sensitivity toward the level of stress that they continue to experience.”