Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to our COVID-19 town hall. My name is Ray Darling. I am the University Registrar, and I’m also a very proud U of G graduate. For the next 90 minutes I will be your emcee.
As we gather virtually, I want to begin by encouraging you to take a moment of reflection for the lands on which you reside. And those that connect us as part of the University of Guelph. The University of Guelph campus resides on the treaty land of the Mississaugas of the Credit, and lands that the Anishinaabe, Haudenosaunee, Lenapewak, and Wendat peoples have inhabited for centuries. We recognize that these lands continue to be home to diverse communities of First Nations Inuit and Métis peoples. Through this land acknowledgement and our actions we reaffirm U of G’s commitment to ensuring that indigenous ways of knowing, being, and doing are meaningfully and respectfully woven into the framework of our institution with the goals of reconciliation, decolonization, and an equitable future for all.
Our goal with today’s town hall is to provide you with an overview of the latest COVID-19 public health information, and to answer your questions about the winter semester. We will begin with a few words from President Yates followed by a presentation Dr. Nicola Mercer, medical officer of health and CEO for Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health. And then we will jump into your questions. Dr. Mercer, we understand that you need to leave after your presentation, and we thank you for taking the time to speak to the U of G community today.
I also who want to thank our executive team. President and Vice-Chancellor, Dr. Charlotte Yates; Provost, and Vice-President (Academic), Dr. Gwen Chapman; Vice-President (External), Daniel Atlin; and Vice-President of Finance and Operations, Sharmilla Rasheed. Unfortunately, our Vice President of Research, Dr. Malcolm Campbell, is unable to join us today as he is right now chairing the Ontario Council on University Research. In his place, we have our Manager of Research Risk, Jennifer Wesley. The team is here today to help answer these questions. Thank you to those of you who were able to submit questions in advance. If you didn’t have the time to pre-submit your questions, the team’s Q&A is available. And we encourage you to ask your questions during the question portion of the event, which begins after Dr. Mercer’s presentation. And with that, I will introduce Dr. President Charlotte Yates. Dr. Yates.
Thanks very much. Ray. Kim, am I live? Yes. So, welcome everyone. It’s a pleasure to be able to be together with all of you virtually this afternoon. I can’t see you as we’re using Team’s Live, but I know you’re out there, and I just want to say thank you for joining us today. And I want to echo Ray Darling’s thanks to our university’s senior leaders who will be helping to answer your questions. And I want to express my deep gratitude to Dr. Nicola Mercer for all of her efforts over the past months, and for taking the time today to speak with us at a time that is so demanding for our public health officials.
As you all will all be aware, we announced nearly two weeks ago that in-person course delivery will resume this coming Monday, January 31st, 2022. Already in-person teaching has gradually resumed in some courses or components of courses where face-to-face activities, such as labs and studios are critical to achieving learning objectives.
Over the last week in particular but weeks before I have heard from many faculty staff, students, and their parents about our plans for the winter semester. There is a wide diversity of opinion around how we should proceed. There are many who are excited about a return to campus and wish it had taken place sooner to benefit their learning, work, and mental health. There are others who are concerned, feeling fearful, and feel reluctant to return to in-person activities. Both of these perspectives, as well as the many that fall somewhere in between have factored into our planning, and ultimate decision making.
To make our decision about the semester we were informed first and foremost by the expertise of public health officials. We also consulted widely with our community members to hear the range of opinions and priorities. Through those conversations and our own daily experiences we understand just how difficult a period this has been for each of you and all of us. Our lives have been disrupted and challenged in ways that we never envisioned before, and we’ve had to rise to that challenge. We saw in the fall how critical a return to campus was to the wellbeing of so many of our university community, and we accomplished that return to campus whilst adhering to the highest public health standards, and have gained many important learnings from that fall experience.
We recognize the fears and anxieties you may have, and I want to reassure you that our return to in-person learning and teaching is supported by a multi-layered approach to safety, including our masking policy, our vaccine mandate, and our ventilation upgrades from the summer. We will continue to monitor and adapt to a necessary in protecting our campus environment. This is not the start to the new year we had all expected or hoped for, but our plan for the winter semester strikes to balance health and safety with the need to return to high quality in-person learning, teaching, research, and work.
And we know that in-person connection is essential to providing the incomparable student, staff, and faculty experiences for which U of G has become well known. What I can guarantee is that we will continue to communicate with you, that our decisions will always be informed by the guidance we receive from public health experts, and the input we receive from students, parents, staff, and faculty. Thank you all for all that you do and contribute to our University of Guelph community. Let me turn now to introduce Dr. Mercer. Let me start by saying, I’m looking forward to your questions and our discussion this afternoon. But it is with great pleasure that I introduce Dr. Nicola Mercer. Dr. Mercer was appointed the medical officer of health and CEO for Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health in 2007. Prior to becoming a public health physician. Dr. Mercer completed her fellowship in anesthesiology and served as chief of the department of anesthesiology at Guelph General Hospital.
With 15 years of experience as a hospital-based physician, and now 13 years as medical officer of health and CEO, she has working relationships with senior leaders locally, and provincially. In 2017, she was appointed by the then minister of health, Dr. Eric Hoskins to the expert panel on public health. In her community. Dr. Mercer is the past president of the Wellington County Medical Association, and she currently sits as a member of the University of Guelph board of trustees. Additionally, she has special graduate faculty status in her own department of population medicine at U of G.
Dr. Mercer’s advice has been crucial in guiding our university community throughout the pandemic. We know that you can’t stay for the question period, but we absolutely appreciate you taking the time to speak with us today at such a busy time. I understand your presentation will cover many of the most common themes we heard from those University of Guelph community members who submitted questions. I know your presentation will be incredibly helpful in setting the stage for this university town hall discussion, and subsequent questions. Welcome, Dr. Mercer.
[Slide 1 – Opening slide: Dr. Mercer’s name and title. ]
Thank you very much, Charlotte. And I’m going to hope that somebody will correct me if I’m not being heard. But anyways, I look forward to this presentation, and I think for some of you who think, “Oh, great, she’s not going to answer any questions live.” What I’ve really tried to do is take everything that I’ve heard from other people, from other venues where I sit at, and from other, whether it’s academic or other municipal or provincial tables to say, “Well, let’s try and provide you with, hopefully, the majority of the answers to your questions.” Or at least I do hope that that’s going to be the result of this presentation for you. And I have taken some direct questions at the end that I’ve heard, and we’ve tried to put those answers in. So if you go to the next slide.
[Slide 2 – Presentation overview.]
So today I’m hoping to cover, as I said, really an overview of what’s happening. It’s not just going to be in Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph. I’m aware that people who are on this call are coming from all over, and some of you are sitting in other areas of the province and possibly even in other parts of the country. So it may not be relevant. But I think I want to give you a flavor of what’s happening around U of G, and answer the questions that I can. So let’s just begin.
[Slide 3 – Graph of 7-day moving rate of COVID-19 cases in Guelph-Wellington-Dufferin. The graph shows spikes in Jan. and April 2021 and the largest spike in Jan. 2022 that is currently in decline as a result of testing changes. From www.wdgpublichealth.ca/coronavirus.]
So, this is a graph from our local area. It’s a seven day moving rate. You can actually get these type of graphs from our public dashboard. We monitor them, and we change them and they’re real time data, we refresh daily. So I think though that what you should see here is actually something that is very common, and you would see this, and it doesn’t matter where, in Canada or in Ontario, would see something similar. So if you look back when we started this, the April, 2020, when we started with COVID. How that seems like a really small little blip now compared to what it felt like when we started with the pandemic. You can see wave two occurring in January of 2021 so just over a year ago, which was really the Alpha wave going through. You can see what happened in April as that moved through, which was more of the Alpha wave. Then you can see what happened in October just after the kids went back to school, then a little tiny blip up there, and then things quieted down until the end of November.
And I have to say that if you’d have asked me two months ago to speak, I would’ve been painting a very different picture, and things were looking really, really good with vaccine rollout. And then we had Omicron. So you can see this graph heading almost straight up on the right beginning around the middle of December. That number probably would’ve gone quite a bit higher, the rate, except that we changed the way we tested. So we only test a certain portion of the population if you’re a healthcare worker. But for regular ordinary people we did not test anymore. And so that is not really as accurate, shall we say, as you get closer to the end of December, and then the curve coming down there after. Next slide.
[Slide 4 – “How will we know when Omicron is plateauing?” Dr. Mercer verbally explains content of slide. From https://www.dfcm.utoronto.ca/sites/default/files/inline-files/Jan%2021_%202022%COVID-19%20CoP%20Slide_v3.pdf]
So, one of the questions that I keep hearing about is, and I know you’ve heard various people, probably if you listen to whether it’s news or politicians. You hear that the Omicron is past us. But how would we know that Omicron is plateauing, especially as I just told you that we changed how we test. So regular ordinary people are no longer going to assessment centers and having a PCR test done. They can still do rapid tests, but rapid tests aren’t collected by public health units. Although we know that if you’re positive on rapid, that you really did have COVID. So how are we going to know that this is plateauing? I know and I’m very aware that many of the people on this call are academics, or they’re talking to faculty, or staff. And I’m sure there are some parents out there who are academics, and students who are also very knowledgeable about this.
When it comes to any kind of a curve, you don’t know that you’re past it till you look backwards in time. So it’s never something that at the moment that you’ve hit the plateau, but it is something that you can look back. So what do we know now? We can see, and whether it’s local, or whether it’s provincial that we’re having fewer new, long-term care outbreaks. So that’s an indicator that things are changing. We do monitor our line list of community outbreaks. We actually have a page that’s produced daily, and that’s distributed to all of our congregate settings and community partners within healthcare. And it’s called a line list. Basically, it’s just a long list of who is an outbreak. And that list, which was quite long, is getting shorter. So that’s a really good sign.
Hospitalizations are rising more slowly. Now, did you hear the words more slowly, meaning they’re still rising, but definitely not at the pace they were. And that’s significant. The staffing crisis is easy. I think you’ve all heard and seen on the TV that there’s been a staffing crisis. Excuse me. I’m just going to get some water here. There’s been a staffing crisis in health human resources. If you’re graduating from nursing in this spring, boy, you’re going to have your pick of jobs. I mean there really is a lot of need right now in the health system for new people, new workers. So we can see though that people are coming back to work. Even within my own staff, I can see that more people are coming back to work and are not sick.
And then there’s wastewater monitoring. And the wastewater surveillance, the one that you can see on this screen is actually from Guelph. And we do monitor, we monitor more than Guelph. We Monitor Orangeville locally is monitored. And then there’s a provincial system where we put it all together. And Ottawa actually has a very robust wastewater monitoring program in place. So looking at that we can see that it’s declining in our wastewater. So the big picture all together looks like we actually have passed the Omicron plateau and we’re maybe coming down on the other side. So I do want to be very clear though that I don’t think that we’re going to go down as fast as we came up, but it does look like we have plateaued. Next slide.
[Slide 5 – ICU occupancy in Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph. The graph shows ICU COVID-19 patients both ventilated and non-ventilated. Dr. Mercer verbally explains the content of the slide. Source: Intensive Care Occupancy. Critical Care Information System (CCIS). CritiCall Ontario. Accessed Jan. 26, 2022 through the SAS Visual analytics hub provided by the Ministry of Health and Long Term Care.]
So, this is a picture of our ICU occupancy. Somebody asked a question. And again, I’m trying to answer some of the questions that came in beforehand, and really saying, “Well, how are we doing locally compared to other areas with people who are in hospital?” So the one thing I do think is really important is that ICU occupancy in any one hospital doesn’t necessarily reflect what’s going on in that community. Because patients get moved around. So it is not impossible or unreasonable that people who are in the Guelph General Hospital or ICU are from elsewhere, or that patients who live locally are also in an ICU somewhere else. So our dashboard reflects people who are local, who are in our hospitals, and whether they’re in a hospital in our area, whether they’re in a hospital somewhere else in the province.
But how we count hospitals, how hospitals count is who is in their ICU as opposed to where do they come from? So the numbers, if you look on our dashboard reflect local people, and the numbers from the hospitals reflect who is in the institution. I think as you look at this graph, you can see that our numbers are certainly higher. Not as high as they were back in earlier 2021 but they are certainly higher. But the darker bars are actually quite a bit lower. So the light bars are non-ventilated, and the darker bars are ventilated. So there are more people in hospital, or sorry, more people in ICUs, more people in hospital as well. But the people in ICU are less likely to be ventilated with this wave than they were in some of the other waves. Next slide.
[Slide 6 – COVID-19 vaccine protection against, infection hospitalization and ICU admission. Graph shows Protection Against Infection, Hospital and ICU Admission Associated with at Least 2 Vaccine Does. Dr. Mercer verbally explains the graph. Text beside the graph reads: Among youths and adults aged 12 to 59 years, unvaccinated people were 31 times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 than fully vaccinated people. Among adults aged 60 years or older, unvaccinated people were 15 times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 than fully vaccinated people. Source: Public Health Agency of Canada. Statement from the Chief Public Health Officer of Canada on Dec. 17, 2021. https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/news/2021/12/statement-from-the-chief-public-health-officer-of-canada-on-december-17-2021.html. Graph Source: Science Table – COVID-19 Advisory for Ontario. Ontario Dashboard Tracking Omicron. Accessed: Jan. 26, 2022. Available from https://covid19-sciencetable.ca/ontario-dashboard.]
So, I’ve been asked questions about vaccine protection, and I know there’s a number of questions at the end that I’m going to answer about how well do the vaccines work. So this is a slide taken from the Science Table. I’ve tried to put the references down. If you something on our slides as we go through, and you think, “Where did she get that from?” Or you missed, public health if you reach out to us, we have all of the reference for this. It’s really important that we speak from data. If you look at this curve, I think this is a really interesting curve. So it really shows you if you look at the Y axis protection against infection, hospitalization, and ICU admission. So what we saw is that for… If you look against those three lines for the timeframe on the left, from August, right through till about the end of November, we were pretty stable.
Some people were still getting infected. Breakthrough infections are definitely there because no vaccine is 100% effective. And people from the ICU and the hospitalizations were really quite stable. So most people weren’t getting sick, and those who were getting sick who were ending up in ICU in our hospital were at a very steady rate. And then if you see what happened. The one you see that really big drop, is Omicron hit. And what was happening is that the vaccines aren’t as good against Omicron as they were against Delta.
So, we had a large numbers of people starting to become infected with this particular new variant, the Omicron strain or lineage. And you can see following it by a few weeks, you can see a dip in both hospitalization and ICU. Interesting. You can really see on this curve that our ICU doesn’t budge as much as our hospitalization numbers do. Then you can also start to see the recovery. See the line going back up on the far right, that is actually from the boosters being delivered. So that’s the booster vaccine effect. As more people got boosted, we began to recover protection against infection. So next slide.
[Slide 7 – Local COVID-19 vaccine program. Dr. Mercer explains content of slide. Source: www.wdgpublichealth.ca/vaccine]
This is our local numbers. I was asked what was happening locally. This is also on our dashboard. So if you look at the population 18 plus, you can actually get at five plus or a total population based on… You can change what you wish to look at. I chose 18 plus because I’m really trying to reflect the majority of the students who are at the University of Guelph are 18 plus. I recognize of course that there are potentially some that are a little bit younger, 17, but this would capture the vast majority of people who work or study at the U of G.
So, in our community, 91.1% of all people are fully vaccinated. That number is actually slightly higher in Guelph because that’s everyone including my rural areas, which tend to have a little bit lower fully vaccinated rates. And if you look at the population who’s fully vaccinated plus a booster overall in our population, 55.6%. That number is also slightly higher for Guelph, just over 60% of the population who are had two doses plus the boosters so three doses. Next slide.
[Slide 8 – Who has been vaccinated locally in WDG? Dr. Mercer explains content of slide. Source: https://wdgpublichealth.ca/vaccine]
And this is a slide showing that who’s been vaccinated by age group, because I know that you’re thinking to yourself, “Well, mostly if you’re a student you’re not going to be over 75.” I guess you could be, but most likely you’re not. So if you look at this graph, you can see the by age group how many people are fully vaccinated, which is two doses. And then the booster dose there is the darker color at the bottom. So you can see what’s not unexpected, is that the older age groups have higher booster doses, third doses, and the younger age groups… Well, the very young age groups have none because they’re not eligible. If you’re 17 and younger, then you are not currently eligible for a booster which impacts the lower three bars. If you want to know those exact percentages they’re between 32 and 34% of the population between the ages of 20 and 29 have had their booster dose locally. Next slide.
[Slide 9 – Children (Ages 5 to 11). Dr Mercer explains content of slide. Source: https://wdgpublichealth.ca/vaccine]
Children. And people wanted to know who has been vaccinated amongst the children. So right now, currently for our population, 55.2% have had at least one dose with 18, just over almost 18 and a half percent of them have had both doses. So this is highly variable though. I mean that’s an average and it’s taken across our entire geography. What I can say is that Guelph is certainly a higher, and some schools are higher. Unfortunately, we do see that when it comes to vaccination rates, we see that those schools which have often what we call the most privilege, those are the wealthiest schools, our French immersion schools, parents who are better educated, those schools have very high immunization rates.
We have at least six schools in the city of Guelph where more than 80% of the children in the school have had at least one dose, and much higher rates of them have been fully vaccinated. So it’s not equally distributed. Poor schools, those schools that have a higher numbers of historical groups that have struggled and within our society. So highly racialized schools have lower rates of vaccination, and that is the job of public health as we try and pivot, and as we try and meet those schools, and those communities to try and get their vaccination rates up. So it’s not equal, and it’s certainly a number that we’re continuing to try and increase. Next slide.
[Slide 10 – Vaccination across the Province. Dr. Mercer explains content of slide. Sources: https://wdgpublichealth.ca/vaccine and https://covid-19.ontario.ca/data]
Somebody has asked the question, “Well, how good is Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph’s population versus the rest of the province?” So here is a scoop. If you look at us, we are actually… If we use the provincial numbers, we rank number nine. Actually, if you use our numbers, we rank number seven. And I think our numbers are actually more accurate and more reflective because to be honest I think that our data analytics team does a much better job of capturing who lives in our area and who has been vaccinated in our area, and the province is a little bit more gray because they use bigger areas, FSA areas, as they get their data. But if you look at the city of Guelph, 86.4%, and this is everybody five and up, that you will see that we are number two in the province for the city of Guelph. Next slide.
[Slide 11 – Booster doses. Dr. Mercer explains content of slide. Sources: https://wdgpublichealth.ca/vaccine and https://covid-19.ontario.ca/data]
This is really just a slide just to show you over time how quickly boosters are rising in various age groups. And no surprise seniors got it first, so it was delivered to those who were in congregate settings or who were older first. So their numbers went up higher, and even they got their appointments sooner. So we are still continuing to see that the younger age groups are climbing but at lower rates, and we need to continue to provide boosters and encourage people in the younger age groups. And I’ll speak about it a little bit later as to why that’s important. Next slide.
[Slide 12 – To get your COVID-19 vaccine, choose the option that is easiest for you:
Book online: wdgpublichealth.ca/appointments.
Book by telephone: Call 1-844-780-0202 (Mon. to Fr. 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.)
Drop-in to any WDGPH Clinic: Find a list of locations and time at wdgpublichealth.ca/drop-ins
Visit a pharmacy or primary care: Find a pharmacy neat you at covid-19.ca/Ontario.ca/vaccine-locations. Call your primary care provider to see if they are offering vaccines.]
So, if you are listening, and you have not had a booster dose yet, in our area these are all the ways that you can do it. Really, there isn’t a lot of excuse right now on why you couldn’t get a booster shot. Almost every pharmacy has vaccine, and is looking for people to vaccinate. If we have a clinic and we have Stone Road Mall open up every single day. We still have Linamar running, our own offices on Chancellors Way. You can walk in, you don’t even need an appointment. You can book an appointment. It’s probably better if you want a specific time, we have appointments available. And there are lots and lots and lots of vaccine available. And for those of you who are waiting for Pfizer, it is now available and you can get Pfizer.
Although truthfully, if you are waiting for Pfizer, I think that the Moderna, the data out of Moderna shows that it’s probably a little better vaccine than Pfizer, probably because it’s a slightly bigger dose. But for those of you who had Moderna, I think that you made a great choice. And if I was choosing, I would probably choose Moderna for myself. But if you want Pfizer, you can have Pfizer if you want to match up your doses. So lots of places. Next slide. And if you want something… I’ll just mention that if you are wanting an appointment on the U of G campus, that student health services has appointments, has vaccine so you don’t even have to go off campus to get a vaccine right now.
[Slide 13 – Protect yourself to protect the Guelph community. Slide shows the “Swiss Cheese” method of protection. The slide shows slices of holey Swiss cheese. The stacked up layers of cheese so that the virus can pass through the gaps in each prevention method, but by layering many preventions together we can better protect ourselves. Layers of protection include: Physical distance, masks, hand hygiene and cough etiquette, avoid touching your face, if crowded limit your time, fast and sensitive testing and tracing, ventilation/outdoors/air filtration, government messaging and financial support, quarantine and isolation, vaccines. Source: Adapted from Ian M. Mackay (virologydownunder.com) and James T. Reason. Illustration by Rose Wong.]
How do you going to protect yourself? So I’ve shown this slide before, and I know that many people who are listening, and I know there’s at least four different groups that are listening. Whether you’re faculty, you’re staff, you’re parents, or you’re students, everybody wants perfection. They want to know guaranteed. And I’m going to tell you that if you want to protect yourself from getting COVID it starts with you. It starts with us as individuals. When it comes to all diseases and all… No matter what disease we talk about, whether it’s bloodborne, or sexual transmitted, or airborne or respiratory, and this is a respiratory disease, we’ll get to that later. It starts with our own personal responsibility. So this talks about the things that we can do to protect ourselves.
And then we have what we call shared responsibilities, and shared responsibilities are a lot of the things that we in public health also do in terms of the requirements that we put on our businesses and our organizations, or our municipalities as we do the policies to ensure that those things… The quarantine and isolation rules, for example. The follow-up of public health. The vaccines that make them available. I can make them available like crazy but if you don’t take them, then that’s a personal responsibility that’s going to let us all down. So if you go to the next slide, I think it talks about when we return to campus.
[Slide 14 – Ensuring the safest possible return to campus. Dr. Mercer explains content of slide.]
I cannot stress enough that we all have a personal responsibility to complete all of these items. These are the things that we all have within our own control. I need you to get vaccinated. I’m going to present some data a little bit later in this talk about why you need to get vaccinated. You need your booster dose. If you haven’t had any vaccines, you need to get vaccinated. If you are waiting for a specific vaccine, there might be some choices coming up very soon. Novavax is probably going to be approved. But if you have been vaccinated and you have not had a booster dose, you need that booster dose. That is something that you can do to ensure a safe return to campus.
Wear a mask. I know that the university has made a new statement on medical masks. Medical masks are very good. If you think about all of us as healthcare providers, those of us who work amongst COVID patients. My husband is a physician. He works in an office. He sees people every day. Healthcare providers, since the start of this pandemic have been wearing medical masks to protect themselves. Wear a mask.
Number one important thing though about wearing a mask is you got to wear it properly. Can’t wear it under your chin. Has to be on your nose. It has to fit you. People often ask me what the best mask to wear. I’m not going to give you a brand. The best mask, first of all, especially for children is the one that they will actually wear. So if your child will not wear something, that’s a terrible mask. It maybe the best mask on the planet but if they keep taking it off, it’s not going to work for them. Just lost my earbud. The next thing is the mask has to cover your mouth and nose. Okay. Can’t just cover one or the other. Okay. It needs to fit you properly. It has to be the right size. There are ways and tips to getting a mask to fit you better, and there’s all kinds of masks out there now.
And medical masks are good masks, but I can’t stress that enough. So I think that’s a good decision. And I know lots of other universities have made that decision. In my public health unit we made that decision about a year and a half ago now. At the start of the pandemic, we provide everybody who enters our building for service, we provide them with a medical grade mask, and all my staff wear medical grade masks at all times when they’re on site. Physically distance when able. So most of the time we can stay apart, most of the time. But it’s really, really easy to cheat on this when you know somebody. So throughout the pandemic, I’ve seen time and time again that coworkers, or friends, or family manage to infect each other because you can’t get COVID from somebody you know and like, that kind of attitude. Well, that’s not right. In fact, most of us are getting COVID from people that we know and like.
So physically distance when you are able is really important. Remember, though, if you’re wearing a really good a mask as a healthcare worker, I can assure you that you can’t do a physical and stay six feet apart. None of us have arms that long. So you are able to be protected if you’re wearing the right mask. So try and stay apart, but if you can’t, if you’ve got the right protection, it’s also keeping you safe. I can’t emphasize though, stay home if you feel sick. This is a new normal. This is where we are going as a society, and it’s going to impact workplaces, and it’s going to impact our academic and educational institutions about how do we deal with people who are doing the right thing by saying, “You know what? I got a sore throat today, or I’ve got a cough, or I’ve got some aches. I need to stay and work from home or go to school remotely.” Or whatever the other workplace is if they don’t have remote work, then I need to have a day off or sick.
This is our new societal norms and ones that will be continually having conversations with the government about what that looks like for people who are unable to work remotely. But staying home if you are sick is a personal responsibility that we must all follow. And not have negative consequences when we make those choices. And obviously follow any of the current provincial guidelines in place. Next slide.
[Slide 15 – Balancing public health measures with COVID-19 risks. Image on the slide shows a balanced scale. On one side is a block that says, “Impact of COVID-19 on the community”. On the other side is a block that says, “Impact of restrictions and measures.”]
So, I want to talk about what this has been like for me personally, as I balance public health measures against the risks. So this is where I just want to point out that I’ve told you that there are four groups of people that are sitting right now, and are listening to me speak. We all sit and look about what’s happening from the chair that we are sitting in. And I just want to point out to you that we all sit in different chairs. So if you are a student, how you’ve view what’s happened in the pandemic is going to be very different. If you are somebody like me, who is able to work from home a lot, my income hasn’t been impacted by the pandemic other than I’ve had to work a lot harder to get it.
But for many people in our society who has been impacted has not been equal. We’ve had people in our society who had decent jobs, were always independent, and have seen their income totally evaporate. We’ve had other people who’ve had businesses and seen their incomes double or triple as whatever the service they provided was needed. We’ve also had groups in our society who have had a steady paycheck and have had steady benefits, and have had… Really the pandemic hasn’t impacted them. In fact, for some groups of people, some of my employees have commented that they’ve had more money in their pocket due to the pandemic. Other than the fact that they’ve been working extra hours, they haven’t had to commute so they haven’t had to pay for gas.
So, the pandemic has not impacted everybody equally, and unfortunately there have been groups of people who’ve been severely impacted by the provision of public health measures on our community. People who’ve lost employment, lost income, and it is not being brought back because there’s no amount of future income that could make up for all of the things that groups in our society have lost. As your medical officer of health, I see it all. And as I look, I have to look above each and every group, and look at the big picture. Look at what the impact of COVID on the community. What’s happening? The spread of the virus. Who’s getting sick? Who’s not getting sick? Also, I have to look at the impact of the restrictions and the measures, and then what they are doing to the people who work in our community. And I have to try and find that balance. And I know that for people who are listening, some people, actually, probably a lot of you are going to think, I didn’t get it right because I try to balance the two. So the next slide.
[Slide 16 – Ontario Education System benefits: Knowledge transfer; learning interactions outside of the classroom; safe places to live and study; recreation; competitive sports; social clubs; access to healthcare and mental health services; reliable internet access; the foundational social competencies and friendships for a lifetime]
Speaking about, now, specifically more to the education system, I really want to point out that university is a lot more than just knowledge transfer. So I’ve used, and I’m sure that you know that, and you instinctively know that our universities are some of the most wonderful environments that we can possibly create. They’re unique because based on the age group that are there, based on the curiosity, based on people pay a lot of money to come, and to spend time in these environments. For many of our people who come they are safe places. Whether they’re leaving unsafe home environments, safe places to study, they’re quiet places, they provide recreation.
Things that students have never done; they’ve learned to do at university in the past. Competitive sports and teams, things that are really important to segments of our society that they couldn’t do if they weren’t a part of a university. Social clubs activities, the arts, access to healthcare. Some of our faculty, staff, students, they get healthcare services that they wouldn’t have access to if they weren’t a student and they weren’t on campus. Mental health services, reliable internet access. And really it is often for most people, the foundation of our social competencies, the relationships, the boyfriends, girlfriends, friends for a lifetime. So these are all of the benefits, and these are the things that we have impacted over the last two years. Next slide.
[Slide 17 – Education disruption has negative impacts. Dr. Mercer explains content of slide. Source: https://rsc-src.ca/sites/default/files/C%26S%20PB%20ES_EN.pdf]
So much of this we know from looking at our, especially, our high school population. But education disruption has serious and significant negative impacts. So going online does not fix all of the things. This best alternative that we had, but it was a poor second cousin to all of the things that we get from being in a full and compliment of our university education. What we are seeing, and these effects are cumulative, we are seeing this and now we’re starting to report that the disengagement of students, chronic attendance problems, especially for those who are in our more vulnerable parts of society, declines in academic achievement, decreased credit attainment, social isolation and loneliness, and significant, significant deteriorations in mental health in our youth and our young adult population.
But we are really getting very worried in public health in particular about the effects. Some of these things, the academic achievement things, these may be permanent. We may be impacting an entire generation of children and youth if we don’t begin to go back to school, and go back to educating our young adults and our young people. We have some very significant impacts that are cumulative, and are not necessarily going to be easily corrected. Next slide.
[Slide 18 – Who has been most impacted? Dr. Mercer explains content of slide. Source: https://rsc-src.ca/sites/default/files/C%26S%20PB%20ES_EN.pdf]
And really, you know what, who’s been most impacted are those who are our greatest risk. So if you live in poverty or you belong to a historically marginalized group that the public health measures, the online learning, the educational impacts have hurt you more than they have hurt those of us who come from more privileged backgrounds, or who have not been historically marginalized. That is really important. It’s important to me, and it should be important to all of us who are listening that we need to take this seriously. So I have balanced that, and I just want to say very clearly it is not perfect, but I do believe our university needs to go back on Monday. Next slide.
[Slide 19 – Questions: vaccines.]
So, I’m going to answer some questions now that were really specific, and I hope that they will cover some of the points, and perhaps I’ll hopefully go back and clarify some of the comments that I have made.
[Slide 20 – What interval should my child (5 – 11) be vaccinated at? ] So I’ve been asked this question. What interval should my child of five to 11 be vaccinated at? Recommended is eight weeks. NACI has come out and said that it’s eight weeks, and recommend it can be sooner, but that’s an individualized clinical decision. But the recommended interval is that eight weeks. Next slide.
[Slide 21 – When will individuals 12 – 17 years old be offered a booster dose? When will vaccines be available to children younger than five?]
When will individuals 12 to 17-year-olds be offered a booster dose? I don’t know the answer to that. NACI is… NACI stands for National Advisory Committee on Immunization is debating that right now. 12 to seven-year-olds were the ones who got their booster dose, their doses last so they’re the more recent ones. We do know that we have to always balance risk and benefit. So this age group, the younger you are, the more robust your immune response is. That’s great. Means that you have a really good and strong response to all vaccines. So they produced a good response. We want to make sure there is a very rare, and I want to stress, rare, effect in myocarditis pericarditis in this age group. Actually a little bit lower than in the slightly older age group.
But we still always have to… If you’re going to offer something, you have to make sure that it’s a benefit. So I think NACI going to make a statement on this. I’m expecting that in the next week or so. But right now I’m not sure that they will be offered a booster anytime in the near future. When will vaccines be available to children younger than five? Those trials are ongoing, and I do believe that Pfizer has made a request to in the US to ASIP. We usually follow ASIP, is their equivalent to NACI about having a vaccine available for children under the age of five. If I was to guess for Canada, I don’t think we will have that vaccine probably before April, and maybe even a bit later. If you have a child that is four turning five, the current recommendation right now is you have to wait till they’re five.
My guess is that by the time we get to August that they will change that to say that anybody who is turning five in the year can have it because by then the four-year-olds will be past four and a half and close to five. But right now, if you have a four-year-old, unfortunately you have to wait till they’re five in order for you to get the first dose of vaccine. Next slide.
[Slide 22 – If people are still getting COVID-19 after they have been vaccinated, why should I get vaccinated?]
This is a really important question. So this is all about what I want to… I think a lot of people are asking, and why potentially some of you have not had your booster dose. So if people are still getting COVID after they’ve vaccinated with two doses, why should I get vaccinated? Really good question. So first of all, when you had two doses, you had really good coverage against Delta, really, really good coverage. I want to stress that. Then Omicron came along, and this vaccine is not as good against Omicron. If you get a booster dose, you boost your response from getting a symptomatic disease with Omicron up to about 62, 65%. Okay. Now I know some of you are listening and go, “Well, that’s not good enough. I’m not going to get it.”
So let me tell you why I still think it’s important that you get it. If you are six months away from getting two doses, your vaccine effectiveness against Omicron is effectively zero. It works still really good about preventing you from ending up in the hospital. Okay. So I want to be very clear. If you are listening and you think, “Well, I’ve only had two doses, and I don’t want a third.” It will protect you, it’s 85% from severe disease. So it’s still very good about keeping you out of the hospital, especially if you’re younger, but it’s not going to protect you from getting symptomatic disease.
So, symptomatic disease is the cough, the sniffles, the aches and pains, the fevers. The things that are going to keep you out of class and keep you out of the things that you want to do. Going to restaurants, going to your friends, and may cause you to give it to somebody else who’s also not going to appreciate the fact that they’re now out of class, or out of a restaurant, or the gym, or any of the things are important to you.
So, get your booster dose because it does significantly improve your risk to getting what we call symptomatic disease. And you want to be able to, as we reopen, you want to be able to go to class, and you don’t want people to out you if you got the sniffles or a sore throat. So please get your booster dose. It does work. Would I love to be able to say that it takes it up to 99%? Yeah. I would love to be able to say that, but I’m giving you the honest answer. And my honest medical opinion is you should still get the booster dose. I have two children, 2021 they’ve had their booster doses. Okay. I think it was still important. They are at the university age group, obviously. So next slide.
[Slide 23 – If I’ve already had COVID-19 and recovered, why should I get vaccinated? Is infection-induced immunity as effective as vaccination-induced immunity?]
If I’ve already had COVID-19 and recovered, why should I get vaccinated? Okay. Another really good question. And we estimate that about 25% of people have probably had COVID. I can guarantee you, if you’ve had a disease where you had a fever and chills, or you had a runny nose, you don’t know that you had COVID. Maybe you had a positive RAT, and okay, and that’s the case. Yes, you did have COVID. But lots of people didn’t have access to testing, didn’t have PCR, and they took a RAT test and it came back as negative. You still could have had it, but I don’t know. So if you’ve had it or you’ve had symptoms and you think you’ve had it, you should still get your booster dose. Because one, you don’t know that you really did have it, and it’s going to protect you.
The other really important reason is, and I’m going use a different example. If you’ve had a really bad cold, it does not protect you for the rest of your life from getting another really bad cold. Same thing for COVID. If you’ve had COVID natural infection, and you get vaccinated, the two are complimentary, but unfortunately it doesn’t mean you’re good for life. Wish it was, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. It’s a coronavirus which is in the common cold family so it just doesn’t work like that. If you’ve had COVID documented, you had a positive RAT, and yep you’ve got COVID. You are probably really good for about a month. You’re probably pretty good for maybe two months. After that I don’t know how long and when you might get COVID again. So you should still get vaccinated even if you’ve had COVID, if you think you’ve had COVID, having a boost dose is not going to hurt you, and it’s just going to protect you. The combination of vaccines and natural infection is actually stronger than either category alone.
So, which leads me to the next question. Oh, can you go back. And yeah, is infection induced immunity as effective as vaccine induced immunity? They’re different, shall we say. But we do know that if you got natural disease, which I wouldn’t recommend, but if you did get it and you get vaccinated, it’s probably a little stronger than if you just had vaccinated disease, and if you just had natural immunity. But none of these categories. Whether you’ve had any combination of natural infection or a vaccine, or only one or the other, none of these are going to give you long lasting permanent protection so I still recommend a booster dose. Next slide. Questions on the COVID-19 virus. Next one.
[Slide 24 – Questions: COVID-19 virus]
[[Slide 25 – What do we know about the BA.2 subvariant?]
Alright. So this is fairly new, and this is for the academics in the room who like to follow these things. So Omicron is a BA.1 sub-variant. Most of what we’ve seen throughout the pandemic have been in the .1 lineage, shall we say. And so I don’t know a lot. But I’ll tell you right now what I do know is that we had… Last count, we had 14 cases in Ontario that were done by Whole Genome Sequencing. So we do know that it is in Ontario. We do know that it seems to spread probably maybe a little more than it’s cousin, the Omicron BA.1. But from countries that have it, it does seem like it doesn’t cause more severe disease than the regular Omicron, and we think that vaccines probably work the same against it.
So, we’ve had it for a while. It is here. It doesn’t seem to be… Certainly when we got Omicron, boy, it wiped out Delta in days to weeks, it was impressive. This is going to be something we’re going to be talking about. If you’re an immunologist we’re going to be using that example for generations about how quickly we went from Delta to Omicron. But we’re not seeing the same thing here with BA.1 Omicron and Omicron.2. We’re not seeing that. Next slide.
[Slide 26 – Is COVID-19 airborne? Can I contract COVID-19 from a short interaction (passing someone in the hall?)]
Is COVID-19 airborne? No. The answer is no. And the answer is, maybe just a tiny bit yes, but mostly no. So let me explain what I mean by that. So airborne diseases are like measles. So I’m going to use an example, real world example from my own medical practice. Somebody went to Walmart, and was not vaccinated. Somebody in the back corner of Walmart had measles and the person who walked into Walmart at the front of the building got measles. And they’re probably like 500 meters away. These places are massively big. So if you are… That’s an airborne disease. Measles is airborne. If you’re in a building room, you’re not vaccinated against measles, you will get it and you will get it easy. So we often see people who have been unvaccinated for measles who’ve gone Disney World, somewhere. They come down with measles. They don’t know why or where, but measles is highly infectious. Measles is airborne.
COVID is not like that. COVID is respiratory virus. So it behaves a lot more like flu. Although probably we get flu a little bit more from fomites from touch surfaces, but you can get it from touch surfaces, COVID. So how do you get COVID, you get COVID from having a conversation with somebody within six feet for about 15 minutes. That’s what we use as the… So you have a friend, you’re not wearing a mask, you’re having a coffee, you’re across the table from somebody. You’re less than six feet, you’re having a meal. You’re talking, and as we talk, it’s gross to think about it, but we put all these little tiny droplets around us as we talk, our speech projects these small droplets, airborne droplets around us.
If I cough, or if I sneeze, they go even further away from me. If I project my voice, if I sing, or if I yell, those little natural droplets from my talking also go a little bit further. Those droplets in people with COVID are full of the viral particles, which we breathe in through in particular nose, which has our receptors for the COVID-19, and that’s how you get COVID. It is possible to touch something. You sneeze and you it’s all on your doorknob, but that’s not probably the main way because it doesn’t live a long, long time on hard surfaces. So it really is person to person and with those human interactions.
So, we can in very lab related environments where we can dry this virus out, we can dry these particles out. We can make it go further, but it is not airborne. So if somebody in the office below you has COVID, your chance of getting COVID are minuscule, minuscule. Of course, if you meet them in the hallway and have a conversation with them for 15 minutes, and take your mask off because you’re having a coffee that’s how you’re going to get it. So for those of you who are worried that somebody in the building has COVID, am I going to get it? The answer is no. That’s not how COVID is spread.
So that really answers the next question too. Can I get it from a short interaction? Meaning I’m walking between classes and somebody in that hallway as I’m walking by has COVID. No, it is very low risk in that interaction. I can assure you. And if you think about it, you’re all wearing medical masks, and when we went to medical masks in our hospitals, that’s when we really saw that the staff weren’t getting COVID because they were doing things to protect themselves. And that’s with people who really do have COVID and with close personal interactions. Next slide.
[Slide 27 – What is Long COVID? Can children get Long COVID?]
What is long COVID, and can children get it? So long COVID is when you have symptoms, COVID symptoms, whatever they are past two months from when you recovered or i.e. three months from when you first get it. So if you got COVID today, and just loosely if in April you still have symptoms of COVID, then that we call long COVID, or post-acute. It’s a post-acute syndrome. So the kinds of things that we see, and it is most often found in people who have severe disease. So people who are in hospital, or who had a really bad bout of COVID are most likely to get it, not exclusively, but they are the group that are most likely showing symptoms. And those symptoms our number one symptom is fatigue, often followed by a prolonged cough. And you see this actually not unfrequently in other viral illnesses.
So, with people who have… If you’ve ever had a bad chest cold with bronchitis, you know how you have that cough that can sometimes persist for many weeks after you’ve gotten better, you’ll see that with COVID. So fatigue, weakness, other vague symptoms, some symptoms of memory, forgetfulness, or just, “I’m tired. I can’t concentrate.” Vague symptoms. Those are possible with COVID more likely in those who have had severe COVID than those who have not. And this is actually still a topic that’s very closely being studied in various groups and what does it look like if you’ve had two vaccines, and then you had a breakthrough infection. What does it look like if you a had a booster and had a breakthrough infraction? So there’s still lots of questions that we are looking within long COVID, but that’s exactly what it is.
And can children get it? The answer is, yes. It doesn’t appear like they get it nearly as often as adults. Remember, children’s symptoms are often quite not mild. And so therefore that’s consistent with the milder your case the less likely you have it. It’s probably also something to do that sometimes, especially, with young children it’s a little bit harder to ask some subtle questions. So these again are things that are being closely watched. One of the things that children can get is really a multi system inflammation syndrome. That you can get MIS-C. So that is something that does happen to children after they get COVID. It is actually quite severe. It’s one of the complications of getting COVID, and that can also lead to prolonged symptoms. Thankfully, MIS-C is quite rare in children who get COVID, and another reason to consider getting your child vaccinated. Next slide. Next the other way.
[Slide 28 – Summary: The best way to protect yourself and those in your household is to be vaccinated and to follow existing public health measures. COVID-19 is likely to be with us for years to come.]
So, I’m hoping that I’ve answered a wide range of questions as I’ve gone through this fairly whirlwind talk. I think I’ve talked a little bit longer than I should have, Charlotte, but I just wanted to provide you with all of the ways that I think that you need to think about protecting yourself. And I just want to say very clearly that we are going to be living with COVID-19 for a very long time. If you are waiting for COVID to be over before you can resume some of those loved activities or interactions, I’m telling you that we’re going to have to learn to have those interactions or have those events in our lives in a different way, because COVID-19 is going to be with us for many years, potentially forever.
So, if you had to wait for flu to be over forever before you would do certain things, it’s never going to be over forever, and that is what we’re heading for with COVID-19. So I hope that I haven’t upset too many people with my talk, and I hope I’ve provided some clarity as to why I do think it is important for the university to open on Monday. And I know that you have a lot of questions for Charlotte and the team as you move forward from here. So thank you for having me, and thank you for taking the time to be so gracious, and listening to my talk. So thanks so much, everyone.
Thank you so much, Dr. Mercer. We really appreciate you taking the time to speak to us today, and for your ongoing support of the university community and larger community as well. So we are now going to move into the question portion of the town hall for the executive team. I realized we scheduled this to go to 1:15, but we’re willing to stay on longer if you are, and we’ll stay till at least 1:30 to try to get through as many questions as we can. So in order to cover as much ground as possible, we are bundling questions together based on the most common themes we are seeing. So you might not see your question worded exactly the way you submitted it, whether you submitted your question in advance or are doing so now using the Team question function. We also have moderators on the call who are working away, trying to provide you with an answer, or to redirect you to an appropriate website if your question can be answered that way.
Due to the volume of questions we expect to receive, we will likely not be able to get to each of them individually. But as I said, we will try to address as many as the topics raised as we can. We will also be updating the COVID-19 website after the town hall, with links to information that address the most frequently asked questions we receive. If you have specific question that pertains to a unique circumstance to you, we encourage you to reach out to your instructor, your program counselor, manager, supervisor, or appropriate unit head. So the first several questions to be shared in the chat, which I will read out are those that were most frequently asked in pre-submission. They were bundled into a single question to attempt to cover the many variations we received on the same theme. So the first question is, with the high transmissibility of the Omicron variant, how is U of G creating safe learning and working environments? Dr. Yates.
Thanks very much, Ray. And thank you everyone. Wow. What a great presentation by Dr. Mercer. For the answer to this question, I’ll ask Kim to go to Sharmilla Rasheed, who is head of our contingency planning group for the university.
Thanks, Charlotte. I think I’m live there. I can’t tell it’s red lit. Thank you everyone. Thank you for attending today. And Dr. Mercer, just gave us a great presentation, and it was really helpful to all of us, just not you guys for myself as well I’ve learned a lot. I want to say that here at the University of Guelph, we have put many things into place. First of all, we have our vaccination policy, which we are continuing to offer vaccines at our student health services for all students, staff, and faculty. We are working on ensuring that our vaccination policy are compliant for all students, staff, and faculty members. And putting things in place, such as unpaid leave, deregistering students from face-to-face classes if they’re not fully vaccinated. People who are exempt, and that is anyone from the students’ population or staff or faculty have to get a rapid test twice per week, which is tracked through our health services department.
Increased mask and requirement. In consultation with our external and internal health experts, we are requiring medical style masks for all students, staff, and faculty. Cloth masks alone are not considered acceptable at this time. However, increase in layering of medical style masks with cloth mask to ensure tightness and fit is highly recommended. We are not recommended N95s for the general community, which include classrooms. We are preserving these for the areas that really need them. Due to the supply chain issues, N95s are preserved for the most vulnerable within our community, including first responders, and our health healthcare workers. We are working on sourcing and providing specialized masks for instructors for accessibility purposes, and a purpose for teaching language courses. We will have more information on those specialized masks very shortly. We are ensuring that we have class monitors on the first day of classes to talk about health protocols and to provide medical masks for those arriving with cloth masks.
We are increasing the ambassador programs across campuses to ensure that folks are with the mask. They will also have medical masks to give those who are in need or who are wearing a cloth mask. We will have medical masks in key locations such as the libraries, et cetera, that students can access if they don’t have one. We will be selling medical masks as well in our books store at costs. All colleges and units can continue to order masks through stores. Everyone must complete the COVID daily screening and stay at home if you are sick. Rapid test kits are available in areas of higher risk, and is required for those with an approved exemption to the vaccination policy. Rapid test is also available, and are given to all students returning to residence.
Ventilation upgrades from the summer. As an organization we have set ventilation targets for centrally booked classrooms that meet or exceed the recommended standards for specific space. Our HVAC system and maintenance practices are regularly assessed by internal and external experts against public health guidance. Industry best practices related to COVID-19 for all buildings. Our physical resources team continues to monitor and maintain indoor environment through continuing to maintain HVAC system on campus, bringing as much outdoor air our ventilator system as possible.
We are exceeded industry recommended guidelines by upgrading all mixed air handling units from a MERV 14 to a MERV 16 filters. Over 92% of our classroom air handling units are equipped in MERV 16 filters. Where necessary we have added portable ATPA filtration units to supplement airflow. All of this information are available on our COVID sites with all of the buildings. As I just mentioned, we do have the class monitors visiting the class to inform students of health and safety protocols, and they will have masks to provide the students if needed. Please refer to our COVID update website for all public health measures to keep our campus safe. Thank you, everyone.
Thanks, Sharmilla. So Dr. Mercer mentioned we have questions from several different groups on campus. I think the next question would have come from our students, and the question is in the chat now. Sorry. There it is. Thank you. If a student becomes ill and must isolate, how will they keep up with the classes that they miss?
Gwen, I think you’re the best equipped to answer that question. Thanks.
Thanks, Charlotte. And thanks for that question. And again I will repeat what Sharmilla said about how helpful Dr. Mercer’s presentation was. And I think I’ve already been reflecting on some of the things I learned and some of the things that she really emphasized. And I think with this question, again, from what she said, it’s very important that we move to a situation where if people aren’t feeling well, if they have sneezes, running nose, and so on, that they do stay away because that’s part of the way we as individuals can help to keep our community safe. And so we’ve been working with our instructors and talking about the different ways that people can make it easier for students to stay a home when they need to be staying home.
And I will say the same goes for instructors as well. And so there may be courses that are being delivered in-person where for a short period of time if the instructor or somebody in their family needs to self-isolate, that there will be either temporary shifts to remote, or temporary changes in the class. But I think as with other areas of providing safety on campus, that there are multiple layers, and multiple solutions to this. So at the instructor level, we have certainly been providing supports to instructors, both technological supports as well as some course design supports to provide different ways that instructors can support students if they have to stay home.
Each course is different, and each instructor is different, and so there’s no one solution here. Instructors do have the flexibility to make the decisions that are most appropriate for their course. But this includes some things on the technological side. We do have some courses that are fully hybrid where all materials are available either remotely or in-person so that students can easily keep up with the course that way. But for many courses, and this was really pre pandemic as well, many of the course materials are available on CourseLink, our learning platform, whether that’s PowerPoint slides, course notes, and so on.
So often students are quite able to access those materials even when they miss the course. We’ve also encouraged instructors to use flexible course design around whether it’s assignments that, again, make it easier if students have to miss classes for a short period of time. Some of the colleges and departments are looking at ways to support providing makeup exams if students have to miss that. And I will say that even listening to Dr. Mercer, and thinking about individual and community responsibilities, as well as one of the reasons that we are facilitating return to in-person education around student social needs.
And Dr. Mercer specifically talked about the need for the social competencies and friendships that last for a lifetime that students have at university. And I think this is something that particularly our first and second year students have maybe been missing out on. And I talk about this in relation to this question about missing classes, because I think students normally find their study buddies. They find their partners who can help them. And so if you have to miss a class that there is somebody that can also help you with those materials. And I think that there are multiple reasons for encouraging that on the social, as well as the study. And so particularly for students who maybe haven’t been on campus much, and haven’t met the friends that they normally would’ve met to think a little bit about your early in-person classes, and who are the people that you should get to know, and look for those abilities to support each other in various ways as we make this transition.
Thank you, Provost Chapman. Our next question is one that many members in the community asked in the pre-submission and it is, what informed the university’s decision to resume in-person learning on January 31st?
So, Ray, I think it’s over to me. I think I’m live. Yes, I am. So let me start answering this question and then I’ll pass it on to our provost Gwen Chapman. So we know there are diversity of opinions on this, although there is a clustering of universities that are starting January 31st, or February 7th, so within that week. There are a couple of exceptions. Of course, we know that Queens in early December had a massive outbreak and really in response to that outbreak they decided to start much later. So our focus is, and you will have heard from Dr. Mercer the advice that we’ve been given, we’ve been pondering. But we’re trying to focus the balance between health and safety, and that includes physical, emotional, mental health of many on our campus and safety with the academic and research continuity at a time when we are figuring out how to manage the pandemic as it changes.
As Dr. Mercer advises, COVID is not going away, and we need to find ways to continue to operate, to educate, to do our research under new conditions. And clearly, as you can tell, when you’ve heard Dr. Mercer, she regularly gives us advice. She advises us in our university wide planning. She and I speak probably a couple of times a week. In addition to her advice, executive heads, which is the other presidents from across the province have had an opportunity to hear presentation from Dr. Karen Moore. We also are advised by COU, which is the Council of Ontario Universities, which is a group consisting of all universities across the province, has established a COVID reference group on which our vice president of research sits. And this group has medical doctors, public health experts, psychologists. It’s a very wide ranging group, which again, advises us.
Finally, one of the factors that I’ll talk about before turning it over to our provost is, local conditions were a factor. We have a very high rate of vaccination in five plus in the province. We do have access, widespread access to boosters, and we do have good uptake. We want it to be better, and we will be doing in public education campaign around encouraging people to get their booster. University of Guelph has also taken many, many steps, including the decision on medical masks, as well as much earlier decisions on increased ventilation to, in fact, increase the safety of our campus. Therefore, making us feel confident that we can transition safely back to in-person classes. So maybe I will turn it over to you, Gwen, for any additional comments you’d like to make.
Thanks, Charlotte. And certainly you’ve covered number of the really key points in terms of the wide variety of, I mean, the principles by which we were basing our decisions in terms of balancing our health and safety with academic and research continuity. Recognizing that the pandemic is going to be with us for a while, and so needing to figure out how do we move through that. And our extensive and regular consultations with both the external public health experts, such as Dr. Moore and Dr. Mercer, but also our internal experts. So I would say… And maybe I’ll talk just very briefly about some of the process aspects of it. So I meet at least weekly with the deans as well as with the associate vice presidents who are working closely in my portfolio. Each of the vice presidents meets regularly with their teams. We get together as a university executive very regularly.
So, I mean, as my colleagues we’ll know throughout the pandemic, but certainly from mid-December until we made our final decision, there were daily conversations. And again, if not directly myself, others have groups that meet regularly that include some of our internal public health experts, as well as people from our local public health. So we took the time to have those regular meetings. And it is kind of a cascade, so I mentioned meeting with deans, but then deans are meeting with their councils, their department chairs, and so on. So trying to gather as much information as we could from a variety of sources about what the concerns are, what the priorities are. And as people know we sent out a message earlier in January saying, “We’re thinking about whether we need to change our date from January 24th, we will let you know within a week.”
And so again, took that time to try to gather as much information as we could and make the decision on that basis. So yeah, it was certainly a major source of our time in figuring those things out, but recognizing the importance of moving us as much as we can to the in-person. And also phasing that in so that we had some classes that did start at the beginning of January, a few more have started this week, and then moving to the larger start next week.
Great. Thanks, Provost Chapman and President Yates. So the next question is a follow-up to some of the information we received from Dr. Mercer on third shots. So the question is, will the university require students, faculty, and staff to receive a booster dose? And I think I’m directing this to you, Charlotte, and then you’ll redirect your team as you see fit.
Yeah. No. So at the moment the university’s vaccine mandate is for two vaccines. And I want to mention, sometimes I do try and follow the Q&A a little bit as we go. And I do want to say that we have already, students have been removed from classes if they’re not double vaccinated, and staff similarly. So we are not tolerating people who do not abide by our vaccine mandate, or do not have a special exemption. So we’re very careful on this because I do say there was a question asked about that. So with regards to the boosters, we did have a booster clinic on campus. We continued to encourage people to get boosters. We continue to offer booster vaccines at our own student health clinic on campus.
At the moment, we are not requiring it. However, we are in ongoing discussion with the province and with public health around that. And we will be following both public health guidelines as well as directives that we receive from the ministry. And so what I would say is that I would stay tuned, but in the meantime, don’t wait. Don’t wait to get your booster, get it as soon as you can. There’s lots of places in town where you can get it. There’s lots of places. And if you can’t get it in your community, then when you come to Guelph will be very easy to get as long as you’re eligible. But we will keep you updated on this.
Thanks, President Yates. Someone else want to weigh in. Nope. Sorry. I thought I saw you raise your hand Sharmilla. So the next question is about enforcement. So some of our community members have asked, how is the university enforcing its COVID-19 safety measures such as vaccination compliance and mask wearing?
So I’m going to pass that on to Sharmilla Rasheed, who has been involved with this. And so over to you Sharmilla.
Thank you, Dr. Yates. So on the compliance with vaccine mandates, employees who are not in compliance have been placed on unpaid leave, and we will be continuing to monitor that. Only students who are fully vaccinated or have received an approved exemptions are registered in-person classes for winter 2022 semester. Non-compliant students who are registered in distance education, hybrid, and remote courses may continue their learning in these course formats.
As of January, when students use their central login credentials on campus, we will check for compliance with the university policy, our vaccination policy. If the student is not in compliance, progressive compliance measures will be taken. Vaccination certificates are checked on all on-campus restaurants, athletic facilities that are considered high risk. So you have to have that QR code before you can enter those facilities. Someone will post a response to non-compliance with COVID-19 into the chat so you can see that. That outlines how we will respond to and address situations of student breaches of federal prevention and public health bylaws.
Controls and guidelines, and the University of Guelph protocols regarding COVID. This applies to situations that operate on campus are on off campus. The approach takes into consideration the level of risk. Our approach begins with education, where appropriate, students who breach COVID protocols may be subject to a disciplinary action. It is important that all of us follow the rules and help to protect each other. On the masks situation, we will have class monitors, as I mentioned earlier. We will also have ambassadors across the entire campus. We will have ambassadors as well in identified areas that are considered hotspots to remind folks to wear their mask and provide medical masks if necessary if they’re wearing a cloth mask. I noticed in the chat some people are saying that people are taking off their mask to extensively eat in the UC building and other buildings. Our ambassadors will be there to ensure that people are compliant with their masks. And I’ll stop there. Thank you.
Thanks Sharmilla. So our next question, the pandemic has obviously been difficult on all of us. It’s been very challenging for me personally. Just want to… The question is, how are we supporting the mental health of our community during this stressful time? Dr. Yates.
Thank you very much. And you’re quite right this has been stressful on everybody. From students, from faculty, staff, the parents of our students, the leadership here. And I just want to say how empathetic I am. It’s been tough on everybody, and it is important that the university provide the support. So as Dr. Mercer said for many people the university actually provides the kind of supports they need that they can’t get elsewhere. So I’m going to ask, first of all, that Dr. Chapman, our provost talks a little bit about the student mental health support. And then I’m going to ask Sharmilla Rasheed our VPFO as there is work done by human resources to support mental health of faculty, staff, and others on campus. So maybe over to you, Gwen.
Thanks, Charlotte. And yeah, it’s certainly is a concern to us. We know that mental health issues have been significant for students for a long time, but the pandemic has certainly exacerbated this, and there’s no easy solution. But we do provide significant supports through our student wellness services, in terms of the availability of counselors. We also though through our student experience team, and for our students in residence through residents life and the activities there have a number of programs, and resources that are available to help students. We regularly make sure that in our communications that we have links to where students can reach out for help. And so again, really encourage people who find themselves struggling to seek out those supports and to reach out for help.
Over to you, Sharmilla.
Sure. Thank you. As well as Gwen just mentioned, the website on the different family resources available not only for students, but faculty and staff as well. We also have at our wellness at work committee who has created a number of ways to help folks to de-stress through art, meditation, and other social events. We are encouraging you to please check out the wellness calendar. They have daily stuff there that’s available for all. In addition, the wellness at work hosted an excellent session yesterday during the Bell Let’s Talk Day that offered advice, and prevented, and recovered from the pandemic fatigue. That session was recorded and will be available. I just want to say, too, if you are feeling that you need to talk to someone, please reach out to the health resources department, through our human resources department, through our EAP resources that we have, and talk to someone. You can also reach out to your managers, your direct support, supervisors, leaders, et cetera, and talk to someone. It’s really important that you do, and we are here for each other to support. Thanks.
Thank you, Sharmilla and Gwen. Next question is about testing. So with the province scaling back the availability of COVID-19 testing, how are we assessing the presence and risk of COVID-19 on campus?
That’s a great question. And let me start, but then I think Sharmilla may want to jump in. But it’s true that testing, we’re really in a very, very different environment than we were just a few weeks ago when all of us relied on testing, we relied on knowing. And that of course also informed what we knew what was going on in our community. Just as Dr. Mercer said, the data now looks different because we’re not doing contact tracing and testing. Fortunately for us, we’ve got an excellent, really talented research team who has been doing wastewater testing on our campus, in our residences, and as you heard from Dr. Mercer in the city of Guelph. And this gives us a general sense of the presence of COVID-19 in our on-campus residences. And as soon as we see an elevated signal, they then, wastewater surveillance panel will let us know, and then we will respond accordingly.
So the wastewater testing, which is a research endeavor that’s just been so creatively and innovatively adapted to help us manage the COVID-19 is a wonderful step in allowing us as a signal. It will also signal to us if we’re starting to see a decline in the presence of COVID on our campus. We will continue to offer COVID-19 testing through student health services for those who meet provincial criteria. And of course that means also that those who’ve been given exemptions must do their testing in order to be eligible to be on campus. Finally, I’ll turn over to Sharmilla around the access to rapid testing going forward. Sharmilla.
Thank you, Charlotte. So rapid testing are only available for specific settings right now as the university, and are really assessed for high risk area to respond to potential high risk exposures. That is the rapid test may be provided if there was a risk of exposure due to close contact in the workplace or in the residence. At this time we’re not providing rapid tests more broadly for general civilians due to the limited supplies, not on only to the university but the broader public. And they’re more preserved for the place that needs them within our community.
However, as they become more available, and we are hearing through the government that more rapid tests will become available. If we have more, we will be giving out for broader general civilians. As Charlotte mentioned, we do have rapid testing and are giving them in our residents as students return to campus to ensure that they’re tested upon arrival at least twice within the week or so, and are isolated if necessary, and student health services, and student services are providing services to those students that need it. As Charlotte mentioned, through student health services continue to provide PCR testing to those who need them. Thank you.
Thank you, Sharmilla. So we’re coming to the end of our time right now. I want to thank you all for submitting your questions and taking the time to participate today. We had over 800 people join the event today, which is great. We were very engaged, obviously. We have a great team supporting us, delivering it in this environment. I must say personally, I would rather be down in Peter Clark Hall with all of you right now, where I could see all of your faces instead of doing it in this way. And hopefully that will happen soon.
We’re sorry we were not able to get to every question, but next week we will post an accessible recording of the town hall on the university’s COVID-19 town hall website. You will see a link to that page posted in the chat. We will also be updating that website with links to pages that address the most frequently asked questions we received today. If your question is specific to our particular course, please contact your instructor or your program counselor. We encourage staff to speak with their manager or supervisor. If you are unable to find the answer you need, please send an email to R2w@uoguelph.ca. That’s R2w@uoguelph.ca. I want to introduce President Yates once again for some final words. Dr. Yates.
Thanks very much, Ray. And thank you. I’ve been just trying to keep up with the Q&A, and I know on the side, I know there are many, many questions, and observations, and opinions being expressed there. We’ll try our best to respond to those as best we can. I do think that Dr. Mercer’s presentation did answer many of those questions, but we will certainly try and do our best. And I want to echo Registrar Ray Darling’s thanks for taking the time to be with us today, to listening to Dr. Mercer, and for your ongoing support for being part of the University of Guelph community. We hope that this wave of the pandemic, we hope that it’ll be our last phase for a bit of our journey to a new normal, but as we know there is no guarantee of this.
So we remain vigilant, flexible, compassionate. As Dr. Mercer says, we take individual responsibility when we can. And the university has taken a lot of responsibility to make sure that this is a safe working and learning environment. My commitment to you is that we will continue to lead in our response and continue to communicate with you, and as the situation evolves, and as we continue to hear more and more advice, we will continue to share that with you. And we want to continue to hear from you. I do hear from a lot of people every week. And so I’m happy to hear from you again, and I will try and respond accordingly. Your wellbeing, your growth, your education, your research are all incredibly important to us, and they are the forefront of our decisions. I look forward to connecting with you again soon. Thank you, take care, and have a nice evening, and eventually fairly soon weekend. Thank you. Bye. Bye.