CORONAVIRUS

University of Iowa addresses vaccine, testing, dining questions as spring semester nears

'We know many of you are excited to receive the vaccine'

The Pentacrest on the campus of the University of Iowa including the Old Capitol Building (center), Macbride Hall (top l
The Pentacrest on the campus of the University of Iowa including the Old Capitol Building (center), Macbride Hall (top left), Jessup Hall (bottom left), Schaeffer Hall (top right), and MacLean Hall (bottom right) in an aerial photograph. (The Gazette/file photo)

University of Iowa Student Health this week started vaccinating students who care for patients in its health care settings, but — with tens of thousands expected to return to campus next week — administrators are warning its community that only a select group is eligible for vaccination right now.

“We know many of you are excited to receive the vaccine and are anxiously awaiting information about when your turn will come,” according to a Friday afternoon campus message. “The university must follow the guidelines provided by the Iowa Department of Public Health, which prioritize individuals ‘vulnerable to high risk of exposure or severity of illness.’”

Even among UI community members who do qualify by “assisting the university in carrying out its health care mission,” many must wait, according to the campus message that shared a range of spring semester details addressing health and safety, dining, and learning.

“Because of limited availability of the vaccine, it likely will take several weeks to fully vaccinate the entire group,” according to the message about eligible-student vaccination. “But the progress is encouraging.”

As for a second-tier priority group that includes Iowans 65 and older, first responders, PK-12 educators, “government officials,” and essential workers in food, agriculture, and manufacturing sectors, UI officials said they’re still determining which of their campus populations would be eligible.

“The university is moving as quickly as the supply allows, but does not control when or how many doses it receives.”

The Friday message came just days before tens of thousands of students, faculty, and staff are expected to descend on the campus for a spring semester likely to echo the novel fall term that proved only a shadow of the traditional college experience.

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A vast majority of UI undergraduate courses were held online or in hybrid format. Fans were barred from football games, and tailgating was prohibited. Residence hall guests were limited. Sororities and fraternities imposed sweeping socializing limits.

And campus dining centers restricted communal eating, among many other campus changes.

Based on a survey that more than 45 percent of UI meal plan holders completed during the fall, the university in the spring will serve all its meals through online ordering or express service.

Express dining allows students to make a reservation to enter one of three open market places, choose their food, and take it to go.

“No seating will be available for use,” according to UI Housing and Dining.

Online ordering lets students use Grubhub to pick up food from a campus market place and take it to go. Administrators maintained those options after 72 percent of their survey respondents voiced support for no dine-in seating.

“While the majority of respondents (54 percent) are confident or very confident in University Housing and Dining’s ability to maintain cleaning, safety, and social distancing protocols, only 30.43 percent have the same level of confidence in students’ ability to follow the same protocols,” according to the UI message.

The university again is providing students with personal protective equipment kits and — like at Iowa State University and University of Northern Iowa, which also start back Monday — is maintaining masking and social distancing requirements.

The universities are continue to provide residence hall rooms for students needing to quarantine or isolate.

UI is offering testing only for members of its community who have symptoms or a confirmed close contact. UNI is offering that plus access to an on-campus Test Iowa clinic, which offers testing to anyone who wants it.

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Iowa State is the only of the three campuses employing a more proactive testing strategy involving asymptomatic checks. Any students who are new to its residence halls must take a COVID test before moving in.

Although ISU isn’t requiring all its returning residence hall students to take a test — even if they’re traveling from another state or community — the campus is requiring a random sample of 5,000 students who live in a residence hall, sorority, or fraternity to take a test this month.

“Additional efforts to test asymptomatic individuals this semester will be based on campus trends and needs,” according to Iowa State Strategic Relations and Communications.

Because all three campuses kept their residence halls open over the longer-than-normal winter break, when they offered a more robust catalog of courses, they’ve continued reporting positive cases weekly.

UI in the last week reported 52 total cases among students and employees. UNI reported seven new cases identified at its Student Health Center in the last week. And Iowa State, which reports new cases Monday, identified 22 new cases between Jan. 11-17 — fewer than the 39 cases it reported the first full week of January.

Iowa State, which reported more testing data in the fall than its sister schools, tested 24,734 students, faculty, and staff through its Veterinary Diagnostic Lab. Based on ISU contact tracing efforts, officials said most close contact exposures happened outside the classroom.

“Of the 3,471 individuals in contact with a positive case, 58 were identified as close contacts in a learning space,” according to ISU communications. “And one later tested positive.”

Iowa State reported experiencing two COVID case spikes in the fall — one right when students returned to campus and another around Halloween.

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For the full semester, Iowa State tallied 2,246 positive cases and 22,777 negative test results — for a nearly 10 percent positive rate.

Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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