Why 5 universities are keeping masks on even while others are removing them

The 'twindemic' factor of COVID-19 and flu outbreaks have a few institutions adopting a more guarded approach.

While it may not be at the “twindemic” stage yet, the University of Michigan has dealt with two different major viral waves over the past two weeks: a COVID-19 surge after Halloween and an outbreak of influenza cases that is currently ravaging the Ann Arbor campus.

The latter spike has even caught the attention of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is providing a team of researchers to work with county health officials and Michigan Medicine to determine potential spread.

“Partnering with the CDC will accelerate our understanding of how this flu season may unfold regionally and nationally in the setting of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Dr. Lindsey Mortenson, Acting Director of the University of Michigan’s University Health Service.

After posting more than 300 positive cases of COVID-19 in the previous two testing periods, Michigan also has had around 400 flu cases during the past two weeks. An official at the Washtenaw County Health Department called the early flu outbreak “unusual.”

So while most colleges and universities are relaxing COVID protocols because of improved numbers—both on campuses and within their counties, particularly in the Southeast—Michigan announced it will keep masks on through the winter semester (from Jan. 4 until May) unless the environment dramatically improves.

Some 98% of students are vaccinated against COVID-19, a stark contrast to statewide numbers which show that only 54% are fully vaccinated. Michigan is experiencing one of the highest increases in cases in the country (+68% in the past two weeks). Still, many of the University of Michigan’s students, staff and faculty have not gotten flu vaccines, so officials are strongly urging them to get their shots, especially as they travel for the Thanksgiving holiday.

A few others remain under face covering

The University of Tennessee is one of the surprise institutions reinstating its mask policies, but not because of outbreaks. Numbers remain low. The University does, however, have a lot of capital tied into federal contracts. One of the requirements handed down by the Biden Administration and OSHA in Executive Order 14042 is that institutions must protect individuals in buildings with certain mitigation strategies. And so, despite the state banning mask mandates late last week, universities across Tennessee were granted exemptions to keep them going.

But it won’t go into effect for another week.

“We are preparing for the mask requirement to be back in place on Monday, Nov. 22,” Chancellor Donde Plowman wrote to the UT community. “Until that time, please make whatever personal choice you think is best while being respectful of your students and fellow employees, whether they choose to wear a mask or not.”

One university making a proactive decision to reissue a mask requirement is Missouri Western State University. The state is experiencing a 40% rise in cases—including more than 200% in eight counties—and has just 50% of its citizens vaccinated against COVID-19. COVID-positive and hospitalization numbers in Buchanan County have jumped as well. The possibility of that converging with a flu outbreak is keeping MWSU cautious.

“The response team will continue to review the data weekly; however, given the current conditions and the fact that we are entering the cold-and-flu season, there is good reason to anticipate that the mask policy will remain in place for the campus community through at least the end of the fall semester,” said Dr. Elizabeth Kennedy, President of Missouri Western.

While some universities in Louisiana lift mask restrictions to coincide with the release of the blanket mandate from the state, two institutions have opted to keep them on. Loyola University New Orleans and Louisiana State University in Shreveport are staying conservative. Loyola is maintaining its requirement through the end of the fall semester.

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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