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Wednesday, February 21, 2024

COVID-19: UF unions demand action and transparency from administration nearing start of Fall with record-breaking cases statewide

Alachua County declared a state of emergency and Shands COVID-19 patients peak — UF Fall masking and vaccination policies remain unchanged

Graphic by Shelby Cotta
Graphic by Shelby Cotta

UF faculty and staff are dissatisfied with the university’s limited response to COVID-19 as Florida shattered its record for the highest-ever daily total of new cases.

Almost one year and a half since the outbreak began, the brunt of nearly 11,000 total UF COVID-19 infections weighs down on the university community. UF faculty and staff demanded and petitioned for transparency and more efforts from the university to stop the spread of the virus.

In Florida, even vaccinated people are recommended to wear masks due to high virus transmission, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's July 27 updated guidelines, which cite data showing fully vaccinated people can spread the Delta variant. 

Meanwhile, over a week later, UF has not changed its masking policies, which remain optional with no updates.

UF’s faculty and graduate unions are demanding the university require masks in all indoor facilities, require vaccinations for all students, staff and faculty, and provide virtual course options until the rate of infections declines significantly.

“We expect the University of Florida to revise its masking policies to reflect the Centers for Disease Control’s findings,” United Faculty of Florida at UF President Dr. Paul Ortiz said. “The union is making these demands based upon the science.”

Florida broke its daily case record with 21,683 new cases July 30. The state also reached its all-time highest number of COVID-19 hospitalizations for the fourth day in a row Thursday, with 12,888 patients currently battling the virus from a hospital bed, according to the Miami Herald.

“The University must act quickly to continually adapt to these changing—and accelerating—dynamics, and seriously reconsider current Fall 2021 re-opening plans and protocols,” the United Faculty of Florida at UF joint statement with the Graduate Assistants United COVID Task Force read.

The unions are also demanding at least weekly mandatory testing for unvaccinated people and improved accommodation processes. 

The Florida Department of Health said UF may require COVID-19 vaccinations for employees without the department’s authorization, according to an email sent Monday. 

The petition, sent out by UF professor Dr. Mark Hostetler July 27, called on the UF administration to require COVID-19 vaccinations for all faculty, post-doctoral fellows and staff. It also asked for weekly tests and mask enforcement for those who do not take the vaccine. 

Within about a week, the petition gained 672 signatures through support from faculty in nearly every department — far exceeding its 200 signature goal. 

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From the start of the outbreak, UF committed to monitoring the pandemic and said it is always prepared to modify its approach if conditions warranted it. 

At the beginning of Summer, UF often reported single-digit increases of new cases each week, sometimes going an entire week without any infections.

Now, entering its sixth wave of the pandemic, UF eclipsed those trends with case numbers in the double-digits for the first four days of August — reporting 96 new cases total and over 1,050 people in isolation or quarantine.

“I can’t predict what conditions would warrant reassessing our current approach,” Steve Orlando, a university spokesperson, wrote on Sunday.

UF Health estimated in May close to 80% of UF students and 90% of faculty have received a COVID-19 vaccine. The estimate was based on informal polls at the testing site, conversations with staff and students and its own vaccination numbers, according to UF Health

But after three months of requests from The Alligator, UF and UF Health have not provided supporting data for the estimation. 

The Alligator requested documentation of the number or estimated number of students vaccinated through UF Health, as well as the polls and data used to calculate the percentage.

But the university’s records center said it does not maintain vaccination data on students, despite UF Health referencing vaccination numbers in its student estimate earlier this year.

“I don’t have documentation for the estimates,” Orlando wrote on Sunday.

The unions demanded UF publicly disclose methodology, including data and sources used to estimate vaccination rates among students, according to the joint union statement.

“We’re a research university,” Ortiz said. “Polling is not good enough.”

Meanwhile, UF Health Shands Hospital has more COVID-19 patients than ever, surpassing its January high, UF Health Shands CEO Ed Jimenez said on Thursday, urging the community to get vaccinated and consider additional safety precautions.

Five weeks ago, the hospital had 14 COVID-19 patients. Now, there are over 160 patients, 92% of whom are unvaccinated and 31 are in the intensive care unit. Shands moved to postpone elective surgeries that require an ICU, Jimenez said.

Even more so now than before, he recommends people consider wearing masks, social distancing, meeting outdoors and being aware of the vaccine status of the people around them.

The previous January peak had fewer children in the hospital, Jimenez said, with eight kids now hospitalized and at least one in the ICU.

Protect the people around you by masking up, he said. If the community gets its vaccination rates up, there would be less transmission and chance for mutations.

“This is a pandemic of the unvaccinated — this is no question,” Jimenez said. “This is very predictable because of our low statewide vaccination rates.”

While the Florida Department of Health is no longer releasing daily COVID-19 updates and county death statistics, the Florida Hospital Association will be providing weekday updates. Jimenez said Shands will also be sharing its data.

Orlando said UF is addressing concerns of the university community by promoting vaccinations through emails and social media.

With impending in-person Fall classes, Ortiz’s voicemail inbox is filled with fearful voices of faculty, staff, students and even administrators. Concerns range from immunocompromised populations to infection rates among custodial staff.

UF is playing Russian roulette with the university community’s health and wellbeing just hoping to dodge the Delta variant bullet, he said.

“It’s sad that they’re choosing to respond with canned public service announcements,” Ortiz said.

While he understands the political pressure UF is under with no control over Gov. Ron DeSantis’ ruling, Ortiz pointed to other universities that have required vaccinations and demonstrated a moral obligation to prioritize people’s lives over politics.

“If you’re given a set of orders that violate basic human rights, then you have the right and even a responsibility to disobey those orders,” Ortiz, a military veteran, said.

Ortiz said UF should follow the example set by the Alachua County School Board, which voted Tuesday to defy DeSantis’ July 30 executive order opposing school mask mandates for children. The order gives the State Board of Education authority to withhold state funding until school districts comply with the law. 

The university, which Ortiz said is now a microcosm of the national failure to deal with the pandemic, still has a chance at redemption.

Jimenez said the community needs to trust the UF scientists who have gone on record stating the importance and safety of vaccination.

“It’s our way out of this pandemic,” Jimenez said. 

Alachua County declared a state of emergency Thursday due to the alarming spike in cases, hospitalizations and severity of the Delta variant.

The county urged the community to get vaccinated, and for all people, including those vaccinated, to follow CDC guidelines for wearing masks indoors, social distancing and frequent hand washing.

Seeing weekly new cases almost double, the Alachua County COVID-19 dashboard returned, incorporating data from the Florida Department of Health weekly reports, according to an Alachua County Facebook July 30 post.

Student Body President Cooper Brown is encouraging all students to get vaccinated and is willing to assist UF with any vaccination communication efforts.

People aged 20-29 are only 41% vaccinated compared to 85% of those 65 and older, according to the Florida Department of Health.

“It’s super important that students make the smart choice and get vaccinated as we go into fall semester,” Brown wrote in an email Sunday.

UF Health is offering walk-up vaccinations, and Alachua County has walk-up vaccine clinics at Thomas Coward Auditorium.

Contact Alexandra Harris at Follow her on Twitter @harris_alex_m.

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Alexandra Harris

Alexandra is a senior journalism major reporting on Science/Environment for The Alligator. Her work has appeared in The Gainesville Sun, and she filed public records requests for the Why Don't We Know investigative podcast. She has a passion for the environment.

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