Administrators discuss plans to reopen, lift testing mandate for vaccinated individuals at Faculty Assembly meeting


Daily file photo by Binah Schatsky

The Donald P. Jacobs Center. Vice President for Operations Luke Figora joined Feinberg Profs. Richard D’Aquila and Michael Ison for a panel on the Northwestern COVID-19 response and reopening plans at Wednesday’s faculty assembly.

Maia Pandey, Assistant Campus Editor

Northwestern plans to lift the testing mandate for fully vaccinated and asymptomatic community members this summer, according to Vice President for Operations Luke Figora.

Figora was joined by Feinberg Profs. Richard D’Aquila and Michael Ison at a Wednesday Faculty Assembly meeting on a panel that addressed faculty questions about NU’s COVID-19 response and planned return to in-person operation. NU’s forthcoming decisions, like the testing mandate, will follow public health guidelines as Illinois enters Phase 5 of reopening.

The University has not yet made a decision on indoor mask mandates, vaccination requirements for faculty and staff, potential vaccination passports and use of the Symptom Tracker app this fall, Figora said.

“What we’ve heard from the state is that (Phase 5) really does mean kind of a full reopening,” Figora said. “So no capacity restrictions, no types of things that we can’t do.”

According to communications from public health authorities, Figora said the University expects to move from Phase 4.5 — the Bridge Phase before full reopening — to Phase 5 on June 11.

Figora highlighted promising trends in the University’s COVID-19 positivity rate. NU has reported a 0.01 percent positivity rate for over a week, and he said no students have been placed in Quarantine & Isolation Housing for the past several days.

D’Aquila said these trends are largely due to increased vaccination rates, as recent data has shown that even fully vaccinated people who contract COVID-19 only have small amounts of the virus in their nasal swabs. This means the chances of a fully vaccinated individual spreading the virus is “miniscule or nonexistent,” D’Aquila said.

Ison said fully vaccinated people can continue taking precautions if they wish.

“Even if the mandate isn’t there, there’s no reason why you can’t wear masks…I will still be wearing a mask for a while in indoor settings until we get more of the public vaccinated,” Ison said. “The key thing is if the majority of people around you are vaccinated, and you are vaccinated and avoid people that are sick, that’s the best approach to prevent infection.”

The University announced a fall 2021 vaccine mandate for students earlier this month. Asked why NU has not yet mandated vaccines for faculty and staff, D’Aquila said the Food and Drug Administration’s full authorization of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines will factor in NU’s decision to issue a mandate.

Unlike emergency use authorization, the full authorization process is more rigorous and based on a larger body of data, D’Aquila said.

“We sort of had to give the students advance warning (of the vaccine mandate) to get it done,” he said. “If the vaccines get full approval, I think then we’re on firmer ground in saying to everybody, ‘Look they’re safe, and we really want everybody to be vaccinated for the sake of our community.”

Considering data from the City of Evanston, Figora said he would not be surprised if current NU faculty and staff vaccination rates exceed 80 percent.

Given the existing concerns around taking employee medical data and other legal questions, Figora said he is unsure of the public health benefits of mandating vaccines for the small percentage of community members who will still be unvaccinated by the fall.

D’Aquila added that he is relatively unconcerned about this slim percentage of unvaccinated faculty and staff endangering others.

“People who want to get vaccinated can get vaccinated, and if you don’t want to, well, you may or may not be protecting yourself,” he said, “but we’re not going to be concerned that there’s going to be a lot of spread from a small number who are isolated and hopefully surrounded by people who are protected.”

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