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Campus Conversation addresses health questions related to fall quarter

Lloyd Minor, dean of the School of Medicine, said getting vaccinated is the number one safety measure people can take against the highly transmissible delta variant.

Stanford’s high vaccination rate, mask requirement and testing program together support a safe return to campus this fall, said Lloyd Minor, dean of the School of Medicine.

Lloyd Minor (left), dean of the School of Medicine, addressed health and safety-related questions regarding the fall quarter return to campus during a Campus Conversation Aug. 24. The conversation was moderated by Matthews Tiews, associate vice president for campus engagement. (Image credit: Andrew Brodhead)

In a Campus Conversation on Tuesday afternoon, Minor discussed these safety protocols and answered questions from the university community about their effectiveness against the delta variant, the pandemic’s potential trajectory, booster shots, testing, air filtration and more.

“We are a residential university and the residential experience, the experience of being in classrooms and learning in the classroom setting, is an integral part of what is special about Stanford,” Minor said. “I believe that our plans to bring our students back and to get us back into the classrooms teaching and delivering our educational mission are absolutely solid, they’re safe and I think they’re very important to getting back to the core mission of our university.”

Minor emphasized that the number one safety measure people can take against the more transmissible delta variant is to get vaccinated. Information submitted through Health Check shows that Stanford is a highly vaccinated community – around 95 percent of those who have submitted information through Stanford’s Health Check have been vaccinated.

Data indicates that those who are unvaccinated are six times more likely to become infected and acquire COVID-19 than those who are vaccinated, Minor said. While breakthrough infections do occur, he said, they are typically much less severe for those who are vaccinated, and their viral load is lower, making it less likely that someone with a breakthrough infection will transmit the virus. He added that the probability of transmission is dramatically lowered in a masked environment.

Empowering information

In explaining his confidence in the measures being taken, Minor detailed some of what he has seen at Stanford Health Care. With the emergence and dominance of the delta variant over the last four to five weeks, there has been an uptick in infection rates. In that time, 73 percent of patients infected with COVID-19 and experiencing severe or critical illness were either unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated. Of those who were vaccinated, roughly 75 percent had a severe immunocompromising condition, such as cancer, or had multiple medical comorbidities that make even a minimal COVID-19 infection dangerous.

“What all that is saying for those who are vaccinated is, the risk, if you do get COVID, of becoming severely ill is exceedingly low unless you fall into one of the groups in terms of having an immunocompromising condition or severe medical comorbidities,” Minor said. “That information to me is very empowering in terms of thinking about, Are people going to be safe coming back on to campus? Are our faculty and staff and our students going to be safe going back into classrooms? And again, I believe with the measures we’ve put into place, they absolutely will be safe.”

In tracking infections among the workforce in Stanford’s health care delivery system, exposure has often come from outside the work environment, where safety precautions are in place, Minor said.

“Putting it all together then – a high vaccination rate, wearing masks in the classroom or in any setting when you’re not alone yourself in an office, and a testing program ­– we believe that the campus will be safe and the incidents of infection, particularly the incidents of infection for the work environment, will be exceedingly low,” he said.

Hybrid work environments may be best for some employees who have underlying medical conditions, Minor said, and anyone with concerns is encouraged to speak with their unit leadership and human resources to discuss their specific situation.

Looking ahead

Minor noted that we’ll likely be living with COVID-19 for some time and that variants are likely to continue to emerge. However, the vaccines available largely remain very effective, he said, and he feels confident we will be able to develop other vaccines as needed. “These safety precautions that we’re taking and that we’re deploying as needed, based on the local conditions, are going to need to remain present and may need to morph as the situation changes in the future,” he said. “But our knowledge of what to do and how to do is so much greater than it was 18 months ago when we all found ourselves in this predicament.”

The university does not have a recommendation at this time regarding booster shots but will continue to follow and implement guidelines from state, local and federal health officials. However, obtaining a booster “is going to be important in order to maintain strong levels of immunity,” Minor said.

Testing is a key factor

Some questions reflected concern among vaccinated faculty or staff about potentially having a breakthrough infection and passing it on to their children or elderly relatives in hospice care.

In response, Minor emphasized that Stanford is a highly vaccinated community that will be wearing masks, thereby greatly reducing the likelihood of transmission. He added that people will be asked not to eat or drink beverages in the classroom and to eat meals in a socially distanced fashion or outside.

The testing the university has done so far has been “a key factor in keeping our campus safe,” he said. All students will be tested once they arrive as well as five days later in order to quickly isolate and provide any needed medical attention for a student who tests positive.

The university’s Testing and Vaccine Policy Committee is looking at testing requirements and how the university will move forward with surveillance testing, Minor said.

In addition to surveillance testing for the campus community, Stanford Medicine has two testing sites in the East Bay and three in Santa Clara County that Stanford’s community members and their families can access, and the number of testing sites may be expanded. Results are typically available in less than 72 hours.

“I firmly believe that people can be back in the work environment with the precautions we’ve been talking about, that they will be safe, and it will enable us collectively to fulfill the mission and obligation that Stanford has to our constituents, our students and to others who look to us for leadership in this area,” Minor said.

Members of the university community submitted questions on a variety of other topics not covered in the Campus Conversation, which will be shared with university leadership to be answered in other channels.