I hope you are all doing well, and that despite the flurry of activity that accompanies the end of each semester, you got a chance to relax a little this past weekend.
Someone recently asked me how much of my quiet time I spend thinking about the past, how much about the present and how much about the future — a really interesting question. I’d have to say that when it comes to our efforts to control COVID-19 on campus and in our community, my thoughts are less focused on the past and more on the future. Nonetheless, it’s normal at the end of an academic year, especially one as challenging and unique as we’ve had, to reflect on where we have been and how that impacts where we are headed. So, here goes a quick summary of pandemic highlights, past, present and future.
Like the rest of you, I am looking forward to forgetting much of the past 15 months. But it would be foolish of me to not take note of some important lessons, accomplishments and milestones of this past year. After a very challenging fall and then the peak of the pandemic over the holidays, testing, screening and other COVID-19 control activities kicked into high gear over the spring semester. Nearly a quarter of a million COVID PCR tests were done on campus through UF Health Screen, Test & Protect over the past six months. And after a slow start due to vaccine supply, the UF Health Screen, Test & Protect and Florida Department of Health in Alachua County collaboration has administered over 50,000 vaccinations to people from the community as well as campus since the start of our efforts in early January. This includes over 17,000 students the week of April 5.
With so many at UF doing their part to end the pandemic, we believe that the vast majority of UF students, faculty and staff have been vaccinated. I say believe because at present we do not have a way to comprehensively document vaccination status. That said, all of our informal polls at the testing site, conversations with staff and students, and our own vaccination numbers give us reason to believe that close to 80% of students — and maybe as high as 90% of faculty — have been vaccinated so far. Not bad Gators, not bad at all!
While it’s way too early to open the champagne bottles and start celebrating, signs are emerging that give us reason to be even more optimistic. Positivity rates from routine surveillance testing have plummeted in recent days, suggesting that the impact of vaccination among students is starting to appear. Although some students have left town, the single-digit case numbers on campus among faculty, staff and students is encouraging. Hospitalization rates are also down. The one thing that all hospitalized COVID patients have in common? None of them have been vaccinated. Somehow, despite constant messaging about the safety and efficacy of the vaccines, rumors persist that the hospital is full of people who have been vaccinated and/or admitted with vaccine-related complications. This is simply not true. Vaccines work exceedingly well and despite breakthrough infections that occasionally occur, the vaccines are nearly perfect in preventing serious illness and death from COVID-19.
The more people who get vaccinated, the easier everything gets. It’s as simple as that. As Alachua County, the state of Florida, and, for that matter, the U.S. get closer to roughly 70% of the population vaccinated, rates of new cases will tumble. We will get there. The easy part of the vaccination effort is over and the days of the mass vaccination sites will likely end in the next few weeks, but that is not the end of our vaccination outreach. Community-based events and small-scale efforts in physicians’ offices will be the next phase that will push us to the goal of herd immunity. It’s not a question of if, but when. Yes, there are still variants of concern that can potentially derail our efforts, but so far that has not played out on a large scale. In fact, there are more and more data, including real-world data from Israel and the UK, countries with high rates of vaccinations and high rates of variants, where the rates of new cases have been dropping precipitously, as have cases of serious COVID-19 illness.
Like I wrote earlier, it’s too early to pop the cork on the champagne. We need to keep our guard up and stay masked indoors when we are with unvaccinated individuals. However, the end is in sight. In anticipation of coming changes, we have been revising policies that take into account not only new data about how COVID-19 is spread but also the impact of vaccination. In short, we are using an evidence-based approach to get us on the path back to normal. Expect policy changes in the days and weeks to come that reflect new guidance from the CDC and the scientific literature as to what we need to do to stay safe, as well as guidance on what vaccinated people can safely start to do.
Again, this April is filled with so much more promise and optimism than last April. Thanks so very much for doing your part and helping us all get to a place where the prospects for the future keep getting better and brighter.
As always, please visit the Screen, Test & Protect website for more information and don’t hesitate to reach out to us if we can be of any help at all.
Michael Lauzardo, MD, MSc
Director, UF Health Screen, Test & Protect
Deputy Director, Emerging Pathogens Institute
Associate Professor, Division of Infectious Diseases and Global Medicine
UF College of Medicine