What shifting to COVID-19 endemic mode looks like at one university

Even as higher ed is moving past the pandemic, two presidents have tested positive in the past week.

The University of Denver is doing more than just promising a return to more normal operations as it steams into the summer and away from two years in COVID-19 pandemic mode. It officially announced late last week a shift into its endemic phase. So what does that mean?

For one, it is taking its coronavirus response team and transitioning it into “a more permanent and adaptable model going forward,” said Sarah Watamura, who has coordinated the university’s efforts. Faculty and staff who have been heavily involved in assisting in the effort will go back to doing what they were doing before the pandemic. Other roles will be adjusted, and DU has added a new Public Health Manager to oversee all COVID responses out of the Office of Risk Management. But the brunt of “responsibility” will lie with community members, not the university.

“While the novel coronaviruses are clearly here to stay, we believe it makes sense to shift away from an emergency response model as we move into the summer,” Watamura told DU students, staff and faculty. “We are confident that, with our two years of experience under quite variable conditions, we have the understanding and processes to allow several of our faculty and staff COVID-19 Response Team members to return to their pre-COVID-19 roles.”

Its new approach is part of a growing trend among colleges and universities to lower the number of resources being dedicated to COVID response. Many have chosen to reduce testing, including Boston University, which laid off 175 workers at testing sites last month as students are asked to self-test when they are symptomatic, report when they are positive and then self-isolate. Denver has had 70 different individuals involved in some way in the initiative since March 2020, including a team of student interns, but does not need that kind of support now.

“While the COVID-19 Response Team has been the face of this response, every strategic decision and detailed implementation has been accomplished through incredible teamwork across our entire community,” Watamura said. “Together, we have built a community of care to respond to COVID-19 and the complex array of challenges brought to light or amplified by the pandemic.”

As Watamura points out, Denver understands endemic doesn’t mean done. If the environment changes, they will adjust. Indeed, COVID bears watching. Dr. Deborah Birx, who helped lead the nation’s COVID response under former President Donald Trump, said she expects a significant surge of the virus this summer. Researchers at Ben Gurion University in Israel are warning of a potential return of the Delta variant in some form because it has not been completely eradicated there by omicron. And scientists in South Africa and a few other countries, including the U.S., are seeing the emergence of new omicron strains BA.4 and BA.5, which are more transmissible than their predecessors.

More from UB: Past the pandemic: Why COVID protocols vary at 2022 commencements

In the U.S., case counts are up in all but four areas—Texas, Colorado, Arizona and Washington, DC, which is just getting over a massive surge of the stealth variant—with hospitalizations still rising in 39 states over the past two weeks. A week ago, University of Illinois President Tim Killeen contracted the virus. Dartmouth College experienced an outbreak of 350 cases on campus last week, with President Phil Hanlon and wife Gail Gentes both getting coronavirus. They are isolating at home, and although Gentes is having slight symptoms, Hanlon has said he is symptom-free.

“Like everyone on our campus, I’ve learned to work remotely, and I will continue to do that through our isolation period,” Hanlon said. “The positive test is a reminder that we all should continue to take seriously the public health guidelines and stay up to date on our booster shots.”

One state over, the university system in Maine has installed mask mandates again in classrooms after more than 180 cases surfaced during the past two weeks but is not requiring them yet for its commencement ceremony at Alfond Arena this Saturday. It is, however, requiring proof of vaccination or a negative test 72 hours before the event. Most colleges and universities in states where there have been bigger surges in the past 14 days—West Virginia +196%, Hawaii +146% and Oregon +140%—also are recommending masks, not mandating them, at graduation ceremonies.

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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