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President Stanley sees better days ahead as MSU confronts the evolving coronavirus

Michigan State University President Samuel L. Stanley Jr., M.D. joins Russ White to talk about the latest on the evolving coronavirus and how MSU is confronting it.

The COVID-19 pandemic has required a lot of attention and decision making at MSU to keep everyone safe and moving forward. Can you give us an idea of how these decisions are made?

President Stanley:

We begin with the fundamental principle of keeping everyone safe at Michigan State University: faculty, staff, and students. And at the same time, we’re doing everything we can to continue our vital mission of education and economic development. These things and our extension mission are critical to us. And so, those considerations sometimes conflict a little bit or may conflict with what we need to do, but in general, we try to optimize each of those things. I meet very frequently with other Michigan State University leaders like University Physician Dave Weismantel and Norm Beauchamp, who oversees all of our medical areas. I also consult with the provost, of course, because she represents faculty, and with Vennie Gore, who oversees student affairs, and with Melissa Woo, executive vice president for administration representing our staff.

It's a group that represents a number of constituents on the campus and allows us to take a very broad view of what we're doing. And then of course, we look at data. Because of my background, I'm very interested in what's happening. We follow what's happened in the past at Michigan State University. What have our patterns been in the past in terms of COVID? We're now well more than two years into this pandemic. So we can look at historical data and understand what happens. We know that when students return to campus, for example, we've seen a surge each time. Even if there was lower background in the community, we've seen a surge. When there's higher background in the community, we see a surge again on top of whatever's happening in the community. So that's happened. We need to be prepared for that.

Samuel L. Stanley, Jr., MSU President
Derrick L. Turner
Samuel L. Stanley, Jr., MSU President

We also know that we've been very successful in safely administering learning during this time in person in our last semester. So we take that into account as well. We also consider guidance from the CDC. We try to adopt CDC guidance and stay with it. We look at what the state department of health and human services is recommending to try and go with that. And then of course, we make recommendations based on the science. We’ve learned a lot about the virus. It transmits probably twice as effectively as the previous virus did. It's also probably about half as virulent in some sense. About a half the people who had to be hospitalized from Delta have to be hospitalized with Omicron.

About half the people who were hospitalized with Delta would be hospitalized with Omicron. So that's good. Hospital stays are shorter with Omicron, but still people are hospitalized. And if you go into a situation with with Omicron where you have three times as many people getting infected, then the fact that half as much means you're still getting more people in the hospital than you did with the Delta outbreak. So that's somewhat what we're seeing around the country right now is hospitals are at capacity. Finally, we look to coordinate with others. I talk to the leaders at other institutions. We obviously talk to our health department. We talk to our representatives from some of our cities and townships. So they understand what we're planning to do. All those things come together in making the kind of difficult decisions we do.

Russ White:

And as you mentioned, sir, we were able to limit the spread of the coronavirus while keeping most classes in person last semester. Why did we start this semester with mostly remote classes?

President Stanley:

It was a difficult decision because we know how much students want to be in person. And I think all of us wanted to be back in person, but I think it had to do with two things. One was just a little bit of uncertainty about Omicron, understanding it better. I think just even in the past few weeks, we've learned more about it and how it spreads. The second was the recognition that there were going to be large numbers of cases associated with this surge and that the measures we'd done before, vaccination and boosters - boosters are imperative by the way – are the difference between getting sick with these viruses and getting hospitalized with these viruses and having to a very mild illness. But what we know about Omicron is the breakthrough infections are more common with Omicron than they were with any variant up to date and it's far more contagious.

So again, most of the cases that we've seen as a country are in unvaccinated individuals. And about 90 percent of the cases we've seen that are hospitalizations or deaths, unfortunately, are with unvaccinated individuals. But vaccinated people are getting Omicron. And some of us may know people who've been vaccinated and had their boosters who are getting Omicron. So we knew there'd be more cases to deal with. And the concern was we do have to quarantine or isolate. We have to isolate individuals who've been infected for now, according to CDC guidance, at least five days. Before it was 10 days. So if we came back and we had a major surge, our concern was there would be significant absenteeism, both in classes and in the faculty because of this Omicron surge at this time. So it would make it more difficult to have in person classes because people just wouldn't be able to show up basically.

The first three weeks of the semester are critical in learning. It's the time when everyone learns about the course and what's going to be taught and some of the basic principles that are going to be important. And we wanted to make sure there was a consistent first experience for everybody coming back to MSU this semester. So we thought the easiest way to do that would be to be remote in these first three weeks. The goal now is that after we get these first three weeks in that everybody's on the same page. We know there'll still be some absentees. We know there'll be some classes that have to be missed, but people will have started the semester. They'll be in class. They'll know what's going on and it's going to make it I think a better experience.

We also cared about what was happening with the opening of other school districts. We wanted to be aware of some of the surges that might take place there with reopening. We want to give parents who have to care for children or who may have children of elementary school age who may have to come home again because they test positive the opportunity to work remotely during this time and to give more flexibility to our faculty and caregivers with their schedules. So that's what's driven it. We're looking to open again to start in person classes on January 31st. That's our goal right now. And we're following numbers very carefully as we look up to that.

Russ White:

So what else are we doing this semester to control the spread of COVID-19?

President Stanley:

The mask mandate remains incredibly important. I encourage everybody to get the best kind of mask you can. And I think that's very important to do that. Mask wearing indoors remains something that we need to do. And I would really encourage everybody to do that. It's always still disappointing to me that the rest of the state hasn't caught up with that, but I'm really glad that I see it on our campus and people continue to adhere to it. And it's been adhered to at sporting and entertainment events and other things as well. I really appreciate that people are doing that. The really important thing of course is for people to be vaccinated and to make sure you've had your boosters. And we're requiring boosters for all faculty, staff, and students. If you're eligible during this period of time, we expect you to get it by February 1st.

When you become eligible, if it's after February 1st, we expect you to get it within two weeks of your eligibility taking place. And so that's the most important thing. We know that this disease can change to something that can be very severe and cause death. Again, we're not seeing a huge decline in deaths right now during this Omicron surge, but they're not increasing proportionally to the number of cases as they would've with the Delta, for example, but that's still concerning. So, getting vaccinated and getting boosted is really critical. To make that easier, we're working within Ingham County to set up some vaccine stations that will be available for more of the mass vaccination efforts like we had early on in the pandemic at the pavilion.

We're looking for those opportunities with maybe a capacity of about 1,000 boosters at a time. We're also continuing to talk to other surrounding areas about the availability of vaccinations so that we can put on our Together We Will website the locations of places that are providing vaccines for people who need to get them. We're doing some vaccines in our pharmacy. We're doing some vaccines in student health, but there's about a three week wait, at least for those. So I encourage people to find out where's the place you can get vaccinated. And for those students, faculty, and staff who have not had that booster, this is a great time to do this. While we're working remotely, you can do it while you're at home.

Russ White:

And President Stanley, I think you'd like to remind listeners too, that we're all in this together. Nobody likes this, but Spartans Will get through this.

President Stanley:

I know that people are frustrated by the pandemic. I think all of us and many of us who have really taken this seriously have really thought about our responsibility, not just to ourselves, but to others and family members and the community to try and control some of the spread of disease. It's difficult when we're confronted with this variant that still can infect people, even though they've taken the precautions. And again, there's no shame in getting infected by this virus. It's not anything you did necessarily. It's the virus and its infectivity that's changed. But I think we still need to have the empathy we've had for people. But we also need, again, to think about doing the things that we can do to try and mitigate this to the extent we can.

We're all in this together. All of us have the same goal, which is to pursue our education and to pursue our innovative work at Michigan State University and do it in an environment where we're safe and welcome. We all have that goal. Getting vaccinated, getting boosted, and wearing your mask are all ways in which we work together to allow us to get as close to normal as we can during this challenging period. And I think it will get better. What we know from South Africa and the United Kingdom is that this virus goes up and then it goes down in a much more rapid way than we saw with the previous one. I'm optimistic that by mid-February, we'll be seeing significant declines in these numbers and that things will look much better by March.

The pandemic has been challenging. There's a high level of frustration, but there will be better days ahead. Pfizer has announced they're making an Omicron specific vaccine that may help us with this variant and may make a difference. We have new antivirals coming in from Pfizer and from Merck that may be helpful in treating individuals who do get COVID who need this. They do more to reduce the severity of disease for people who get it. There are some good things on the horizon, and we just need to recognize that this is a surge. It is going to come back down again. That's what it's done everywhere else. It's not going to sustain at this level. It's not really possible. We've got to get through these next few weeks, but then things are going to be better as we go through the spring semester.

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