Russell Furr on COVID-19 and the ‘new normal’
The associate vice provost for Environmental Health and Safety discusses pandemic decision making and the public health protocols that continue to be crucial in keeping the campus community safe.
Autumn quarter and a “new normal” at Stanford offer a stark contrast to the pandemic protocols and conditions in place two years ago.
As the 2020-21 academic year began, almost all undergraduate instruction was delivered remotely and most employees were working from home. Today, the campus has the highest level of in-person activities in more than two years, most of the university community is vaccinated, and treatments are widely available to reduce the severity of the virus.
But COVID-19 has not gone away. New variants continue to appear and spread. And long COVID remains a concern.
Though many have been eliminated or adjusted, public health protocols continue to be crucial tools for protecting against the virus. So are vaccinations, boosters, and testing.
Russell Furr, associate vice provost for environmental health and safety, has coordinated Stanford’s COVID response. In a Q&A with Stanford Report, Furr discusses how the university has taken steps to return to a more normal footing – while continuing to be mindful of ongoing challenges and to guard against risks that COVID still poses.
What’s different about Stanford’s approach to protocols now?
We are two and a half years into the pandemic and, thankfully, we now have much more information, including how the virus spreads and what engineering controls work. We have access to vaccines and greatly improved treatment options. Decision-making processes have also evolved and we are now better able to coordinate public health efforts across the university.
There have also been major changes in the way we think about COVID-19. Early on, we thought about COVID-19 and the pandemic as a challenge, but one that we would get through in relatively short order. It’s clear now that COVID-19 will be with us for a long time, so as an institution we need to be able to manage endemic COVID-19 as an ongoing public health challenge.
How are pandemic-related decisions currently being made?
Earlier this year the pandemic emergency response structures – which included the Emergency Operations Center, Policy Committee, and Testing and Vaccination Committee – were formally ended and replaced with a Public Health Steering Committee. This steering committee is composed of a dozen or so university leaders, chaired by Dr. Jim Jacobs of Vaden Health Services, and includes expertise and contributions from infectious disease faculty at the School of Medicine.
The steering committee is tasked with evaluating the current landscape on campus and in our community as it pertains to public health issues – not just COVID-19 – and with creating policies to keep our community safe.
Many colleges have cut back on their COVID protocols, including an end to mandatory vaccination, testing, and masking requirements. What is Stanford’s current approach?
There have been many shifts in guidance during the course of the pandemic, and we work to closely align with state and county public health requirements, unless there is a compelling reason for the university’s requirements to differ. During the pandemic we have found that differences in local requirements or rapidly changing guidance can be stressful and, in some cases, counterproductive to our overall goal of community well-being.
For the start of the fall quarter, we required pre-arrival and arrival testing for students, and continued indoor masking requirements for classrooms, health care facilities, and Marguerite shuttles. We continued to monitor available data and feedback from our community and subsequently were able to ease requirements for classrooms and shuttles. Even as some restrictions are reduced, though, we work very closely with students and staff who have unique circumstances or concerns, in order to best accommodate their needs.
In regard to vaccines, we are continuing to maintain the same basic requirements that we had during the spring and summer quarters. There continues to be strong evidence that vaccines offer a high degree of protection against serious illness, and we are strongly encouraging all of our community members to get boosted, especially now that the updated bivalent booster is available. Information on vaccination locations with the bivalent booster can be found on the Vaccines.gov website. Data so far shows promising results in terms of protection against the currently circulating strains, BA4 and BA5, so this can offer additional protection to our campus community.
Stanford has a wide range of populations, from congregate living in dorms to single-family residences, both on and off campus. Community members encounter each other in dining halls, classrooms, labs, and offices. How has the university supported individuals across such different circumstances?
One of the challenges during the pandemic has been that public health guidance and policy is focused on protecting and promoting the health of entire populations, but individuals have their own unique circumstances. In other words, rules or guidance are set for an entire group, but we know these rules will never make sense for every individual or circumstance that arises. So we try to establish straightforward guidance that can be applied across campus populations.
That said, we have made decisions to modify some guidance or create a policy for a particular group within our community when it made sense from a risk perspective. For example, the decision to require masking in classrooms, dorms, and other residential spaces in the first few weeks after returning to campus was made with consideration for the fact that students live in congregate settings and were traveling, from across the country and around the world, to Stanford. We also provided more support for students obtaining rapid tests.
At the same time, as certain policies end, required weekly Color testing for example, we still support those who would like to continue testing. While masking is no longer required in most of the campus, we still strongly recommend it in crowded spaces to help protect classmates and colleagues.