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Questions remain after Dal announces vaccine mandate

Dalhousie has joined the growing list of post-secondary schools in Canada requiring vaccination from students, staff and faculty returning to campus this fall.  

In order to access a Dal campus, proof of vaccination must be provided, the university announced in a memorandum on Aug. 25. Those who are not vaccinated or decline to share proof of vaccination must provide two negative COVID-19 tests a week, the memo said.  

The Dalhousie Faculty Association (DFA) demanded a vaccination mandate via Twitter on Aug. 18 and in an open letter to university President, Deep Saini, on Aug. 23. Also on Aug. 18, Dalhousie’s Health Law Institute –– an institute within the Schulich School of Law made up of faculty from the faculties of medicine, health professions, dentistry and law ––  published an open letter sent to Saini demanding vaccination requirements for students, staff and faculty.  

“I think this is a very good result that will keep more people safe,” said Jocelyn Downie, the James S. Palmer Chair in Public Policy and Law at Dal and a member of the Health Law Institute who wrote the first draft of the letter. “I’m grateful that the university listened and shifted,” she said. 

Dal’s announcement followed other post-secondary institutions in the province. At the time of this writing, the university joins Nova Scotia Community CollegeMount Saint Vincent University and Saint Mary’s University (SMU) in requiring people on campus to be fully vaccinated. 

Dalhousie did not respond to the Dalhousie Gazette’s repeated requests for an interview regarding their campus re-opening plan.  

Mounting pressure from faculty prior to decision

“From the start of the pandemic we were not in the loop,” DFA President Tara Perrot said in an interview with the Dalhousie Gazette.  

The DFA has been publicly calling for the university to provide more information on its re-opening plan since the summer began.  

In July, the DFA tweeted that with only eight weeks left until the fall term, the association still had zero clarity from Dalhousie regarding their plan to safely re-open classes. 

As the first day of classes neared, Dal’s re-opening plan became less clear, Perrot said. 

On Aug. 13, Dal released a memo with updates on its masking policy for the fall term, a policy that the DFA had been publicly asking for clarification on through Twitter since July 19.  

The memo said the university is, “asking everyone to continue wearing non-medical masks in common spaces indoors (including classrooms) for the month of September.” However, on the university’s COVID-19 safety plan frequently asked questions site, it reads, “Provided Public Health’s broader mask mandate has been lifted, [wearing masks] will not be formally enforced.”  

As of this writing, Nova Scotia is slated to enter phase 5 of its re-opening plan and remove the province-wide mask mandate on Sept. 15, meaning mask-wearing could be optional in Dalhousie classrooms after six days of classes.   

“It left everybody feeling really even more nervous than we had been,” Perrot said about this lack of enforcement.  

With concern rising after Dal’s unclear mask policy was revealed, the DFA held an executive meeting where the union’s executive team decided to draft the Aug. 23 letter demanding mandatory vaccinations for all faculty, students and staff. The letter also calls for mandatory masking in all indoor public spaces, mandatory physical distancing where possible and ventilation that meets public health guidelines. 

On Aug. 24, Perrot met with the Dalhousie administration and learned that the university would be announcing a vaccine mandate. 

The DFA’s push for a vaccine mandate was supported by the Health Law Institute, which also quickly mobilized its formal demand for a vaccine mandate. Downie wrote the letter’s first draft on Aug. 17 and it was published the following day.  

“This was one of those rapid responses, rapid mobilization exercises,” Downie said. “We had to move, because, I mean, it was already too late.”  

The Health Law Institute shared their letter publicly on Twitter as a Google form. This allowed members of the Dal community to add their signatures in support; the letter was signed by 464 people when Dal’s decision was announced.  

Community concerned about the details 

While the vaccine mandate brings some relief, the details of Dalhousie’s policy warrant some concern, according to Sarah Nersesian, a second-year Ph.D. candidate in the department of microbiology and immunology at Dalhousie.  

According to Nersesian, Dal’s plans to test unvaccinated people twice a week isn’t enough.  

“Testing bi-weekly won’t change the proportion of individuals that are vaccinated and immune,” Nersesian said in an email to the Gazette. “So the requirements for herd immunity to prevent outbreaks will not be maintained,” she said.  

Mal Hedrick, a Ph.D. student in chemistry at Dal, shares Nersesian’s concern that Dalhousie is leaving too many cracks for the virus to slip through.  

“[Dalhousie] has got a part of the puzzle, but they don’t have everything,” Hedrick said.  

Like the DFA and the Health Law Institute, Hedrick would like to see a stricter masking and social distancing policy on campus this fall. As the rules currently stand, Hedrick said they’ll be wearing an N95 respirator –– a more effective mask that is commonly found in healthcare settings –– or two masks at once, to protect themselves.  

Risk of an outbreak still present 

Perrot said one of the DFA’s main concerns is what happens if there is an outbreak of COVID-19 on campus — an event that Nersesian said is still a possibility despite the vaccine mandate.  

“Having unvaccinated individuals on campus being potentially exposed to breakthrough infections or carrying infections will substantially increase the risk of a larger outbreak on campus,” Nersesian said.  

If an outbreak were to take place, faculty are unclear on what would happen, Perrot said.  

“Are we going to have to combine online and in-person in that situation? We’ve been told we won’t have to do both, but I think that’s ignoring the possibility of an outbreak,” she said.  

Madeline Stinson, President of the Dalhousie Student Union (DSU) shares this concern and said other students do too. 

“It’s not realistic that we go into the fall and see twenty thousand people, not including faculty and staff, go into the same area and not see cases,” said Stinson. 

Stinson said the DSU is hoping to set up a campus case tracing mechanism for exposures, similar to ones set up by the province. She said this is separate from the efforts the university might be undertaking. 

Stinson said Dal should be “better at communicating the details” of what will happen in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak. 

Dalhousie Response

Dalhousie’s Vice-President of Student Affairs, Verity Turpin, said Dal is confident in their plan. The Gazette interviewed Turpin on Aug. 4 for a story about university residences.  

“I have been personally involved in dealing with COVID-19 cases with students on campus,” said Turpin. “Let me tell you from personal experience, those measures that Public Health has put in place, they work.” 

When asked about Dalhousie’s plans specifically, she said “Dalhousie has a strong track record of dealing with the pandemic. Our success has come from our students and staff and faculty following those [Public Health] guidelines.”  

In a meeting with President Saini on Aug. 24, the DFA raised their concerns about outbreaks.  

“[Saini] was a bit vague, he did say that they would be handled at a local level,” Perrot said. Whether a local level means on a per-class basis or something else, “I don’t know,” said Perrot.  

“So that is definitely a hole and it’s one reason why we absolutely need a seat at the table,” she said.  

SUB: A seat at the table 

To avoid further grievances with Dalhousie, Perrot said the DFA wants more involvement in the reopening decisions. 

“They’re not valuing our voices in all of this, that’s been at the heart of a couple of grievances we’ve had with this [re-opening] process.” 

When establishing a reopening plan, the Dalhousie administration formed a return to campus committee, which was disbanded over a month ago, according to Perrot. Perrot said DFA members were shut out of that committee, “we did not have a seat at that committee. We were never consulted. Now, that committee is being reconvened.” 

Perrot would like to see DFA members on the new committee to ensure faculty have a voice in the next stages of the reopening decisions. “We want to demand a seat on that committee so we’re not left in the dark until the last possible moment,” she said.  

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