COVID-19 Vaccination Podcast for MSU Faculty and Staff

Leaders from Michigan State University gathered together for a podcast to help answer questions about MSU’s vaccination requirements for the fall semester and to share additional information on plans to help keep Spartans safe this fall.

Transcript

President Samuel L. Stanley Jr., M.D., was joined by Dr. Norm Beauchamp, MSU Executive Vice President for Health Sciences; Dr. Suzanne Lang, Associate Provost and Associate Vice President for Academic Human Resources; and Mr. Rick Fanning, Interim Associate Vice President for Human Resources. The discussion was moderated by MSU Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer Dr. Jabbar Bennett.

Dr. Bennett:

Hello, and thank you for tuning into our podcast to learn more about MSU's plans and preparations to keep Spartans safe this fall. I am Jabbar Bennett, vice president and chief diversity officer for Michigan State University and I will be your moderator.

In this podcast, we'll address your questions about the health and safety measures in place this semester and we'll share additional information on our collective efforts to keep our Spartan community safe. We're going to hear from MSU experts about the importance of the COVID-19 vaccine and mask-wearing and how these important health requirements better protect the campus community. In addition, we'll spend some time answering your questions about these requirements and what they mean for you, our faculty and staff.

And now, I'm pleased to be joined today by a number of guests who have wide-ranging expertise in infectious disease, healthcare, and human resources. We'll start our conversation today with MSU president, Dr. Samuel Stanley, whose background in infectious disease research has helped navigate MSU through the COVID-19 health crisis. He will be followed by Dr. Norm Beauchamp, MSU executive vice president for health sciences, Dr. Suzanne Lang, associate provost and associate vice president for academic human resources, and Mr. Rick Fanning, interim associate vice president for human resources.

With that, it is now my pleasure to welcome Dr. Sam Stanley. President Stanley, thank you for joining us.

President Stanley:

Thank you, Dr. Bennett, and to my fellow panelists for joining us for this important conversation for our faculty and staff. I've said since I arrived at Michigan State University, just over two years ago, that the health and safety of our campus community are always my chief concern. And when it comes to making decisions in response to the pandemic, we always need to consider how it will affect our faculty, staff, and our community. And we need to follow the science, the public health trends, and of course, health agency guidelines and rules. We have a fundamental obligation to keep our campus community safe while continuing to move the university forward and focusing on the success of our students.

Late last month, the Centers for Disease Control issued some very concerning data and guidance related to the Delta variant of the coronavirus. Data from several studies indicated that the Delta variant is much more serious than the original strain in its transmissibility and possibly in its health impacts. In fact, it's three times more contagious than the original strain of the virus. The R-naught value of the original was around 2.7 and that of the Delta variant is closer to 6 to 8. And that's significant when you consider the close proximity of students, faculty, and staff together on a college campus. We also learned that there were some cases of what are called breakthrough infections, where people who had been vaccinated could spread the virus, even though they don't have symptoms.

At the same time, we were watching the trends nationally and locally for reported cases, which were rising here and elsewhere around the country. And that's really unfortunate because vaccinations had made good progress in knocking the virus back by this summer as more and more people had received their vaccinations. And I've been a firm and vocal proponent of these vaccines. My reading the data tells me that they're extraordinarily safe and incredibly effective at preventing severe illness, hospitalization, and death.

In addition, the base of knowledge we've accumulated on vaccines at this point in time is huge to what we've learned from the very robust clinical trials and because so many people have now safely been vaccinated in the US alone, nearly 200 million. But as we observed vaccination rates, we became concerned that we might be short of where we needed to be to reach herd immunity in our community, primarily due to the new threat posed by the Delta variant.

Because of this, as well as important input from faculty and staff through shared governance, and input from student leaders, we decided to mandate vaccination for all students, faculty, and staff at MSU with exemptions for medical or religious reasons, and to issue a mandate for mask-wearing indoors for at least the first six weeks of the fall semester.

These actions are key in allowing us to return to campus safely, to experience in-person learning again, and to engage in all of the things that make the MSU college experience so special. And we know Spartans can do it. One of the lessons we took away from the last year and a half is that we can support a safe campus environment when we take the right precautions.

I encourage listeners to learn details and get updates at the MSU Together We Will website. This has always been a dynamic situation, so we will keep the website up to date. I'm looking forward to hearing what our other panelists have to add, Dr. Bennett, and to take your questions.

Thanks so much, President Stanley. That was really helpful for me and I'm sure our viewers appreciate that as well. I'd like to move on to Dr. Beauchamp. 

Dr. Beauchamp:

Yeah. Thank you, Dr. Bennett. And just following President Stanley, I mean, one of the blessings we have at MSU is a president who is an infectious disease specialist, as we seek to navigate this. And my feelings really strongly echo President Stanley's. What I would say is I had the opportunity to be appointed by President Stanley with Dr. Weismantel, our university physician, to really help lead the reopening last year.

And we made a commitment. Our commitment was that we would be a value-based organization and our decisions would be based on safety for our faculty, our students, and staff. And no matter how difficult the choices might be, safety would define all that we did. And I've been really proud of how our campus has held true to that. It's what Spartans do.

And when we think about a vaccine mandate and what that means, it really is about safety. 98% of the deaths that are happening from COVID-19 are in the individuals that are unvaccinated. We know that we lessen the risks of hospitalizations. We know that we lessen the spread of the disease. And to the extent that we can lessen the spread, we decrease the likelihood of new variants appearing. So I'm just very proud of our organization making this very difficult decision to embrace a vaccine mandate and a mask mandate.

Dr. Bennett

Thank you so much for those very, very thoughtful comments. Much appreciate it. And I have a question for you. So some individuals may still have concerns over the safety and efficacy of the COVID 19 vaccines. How do we reassure our community on the safety and efficacy of these vaccines?

Dr. Beauchamp:

It's an excellent question, Dr. Bennett, about the safety of the vaccine. And really, our knowledge is that the vaccine is highly safe. The technology behind it has been in development for over 30 years. The ability to use mRNA to protect people from an infection has been an ongoing effort and it has been over the last two years where the focus has been on the COVID-19 virus. And when you combine that with the science of monitoring the effect of the vaccine and reactions to it in over a hundred million vaccinations, it just tells us that this is an incredibly safe vaccine. And particularly when you put it in the context of the number of lives it clearly saves, and the damage that results from being infected with COVID 19.

Thank you so much for sharing that information. I feel reassured after hearing you walk through that. I'd like to now introduce Dr. Suzanne Lang and give her an opportunity to share some comments before I ask a question. Dr. Lang?

Dr. Lang:Thank you, Dr. Bennett. It's my pleasure to be a part of this panel and answer questions that faculty and academic staff may have. I know that before the mandate was issued by President Stanley, that we had a number of questions that were coming through from faculty and academic staff who were very concerned that they would be interacting with people who were not vaccinated. And although many of them were vaccinated, their concerns were the possibility of being infected and then going home to small children where they might infect their family. So we really support Dr. Stanley's action and believe this is the absolute best approach for dealing with the Delta variant.

Dr. Bennett:

Thanks so much Dr. Lang, and we all are concerned about safety: individual, personal, as well as the broader community. So here's my question for you. What is the discipline process for employees and students who do not comply with the vaccine requirement?

Dr. Lang:

Well, MSU HR and academic HR will be referring non-compliant employees to the appropriate unit leader to initiate the applicable disciplinary measures through existing processes. We certainly encourage those who have a medical condition that need to be exempted or those with strong religious views to go ahead and use the links that have been provided for applying for an exemption. But then all others who are not compliant will be referred for the appropriate disciplinary action.

Dr. Bennett:

Thank you so much for answering that question. I know it's one that is on the minds of many people as we return to campus for onsite work, but also for students in classes as well. Thank you. So I'd like to introduce Mr. Fanning and allow you, sir, to share any remarks before I ask you a question as well.

Mr. Fanning:

Certainly. Thank you, Dr. Bennett. It's just a real privilege to be able to be here. I really want to recognize how this last 18 months has impacted every one of us across campus. I think we've all experienced some form of challenge and change, and these are certainly challenging times. But I think we also have to recognize just how much incredible work that we've all done together. And I think we need just remember how much we've worked through together and really be proud of what we've all accomplished as a Spartan community.

I want to thank everyone for all their hard work and incredible dedication, both those who worked remotely, as well as those who were coming to campus throughout this entire time and working in person. I think we really do need to be incredibly proud of all we've done. And recognizing some degree of bias here, I particularly want to recognize the team at MSU HR and HR professionals across the campus.

I think we also need to keep in mind that, while we've all gone through this, we've all experienced it very differently in some cases, and we need to continue to show respect and empathy and civility as we adjust to coming back to a more typical way of doing things and being more present here on campus.

We certainly all hope that everybody, faculty and staff and all employees and students, embrace these COVID-related requirements in order to help keep the community safe.

Dr. Bennett:

Thank you so much for your remarks. And I truly appreciate you mentioning the importance of us all displaying respect and humility and civility during this process, because it is tough on everyone. So here's my question for you. Are employees with existing 100%-remote work agreements already in place, are they exempt from the vaccine mandate for the duration of their remote work agreement?

Mr. Fanning:

Yeah. Thank you. That's a very important question. And the answer to that question is that no, they are not exempt. And the reason for that is, in a word, equity. There was a lot of thought and consideration put into this issue, but we really believe that requiring all faculty and staff to participate in the program, regardless of whether they are working in person or remotely is simply the most equitable and fairest approach to these requirements.

Dr. Bennett:

Thank you so much, Mr. Fanning. Now I'd like to transition to considerations around civility and inclusion. As mentioned, the vaccine and mask mandate occurred during the fall semester to help ensure the safety of all members of the community. I appreciate the commitment that our leaders have demonstrated to the overall health and wellbeing of Spartans, so far and near as well. And what I'd like to add is that we must also remain vigilant and be prepared to mitigate bias in the return to campus, which for many will be the very first time that people will be in-person among large groups, some of whom they know and many others they are not familiar with, following what has amounted to an incredibly difficult year for many.

With the return to in-person activities. I also encourage us all to allow ourselves grace in learning and acknowledging harm and respecting one another. Spartans are members of a global community, so we must be intentional about addressing the biases that we all have, especially when encountering different identities, abilities, socio-economic statuses, places of origin, and legal statuses as well.

My office, the Office for Inclusion and Intercultural Initiatives, offers a number of educational resources, all aimed at helping to mitigate and address bias, including the DEI Foundation's online educational module, the implicit bias certificate program, and MSU dialogues. In addition, we have promotional materials available that help to elevate inclusion, respect, civility, and accountability. As a campus, we are truly dedicated to inclusive excellence, and we strive to create and maintain a welcoming and safe experience for all Spartans.

And President Stanley, I now want to pose a question to you. What work is underway to promote tolerance and inclusion for all Spartans, including those who have medical or religious exemptions, and those who prefer to continue wearing masks, indoors and outdoors, for their own health and safety.

President Stanley:

Well, Dr. Bennett, as you know firsthand, diversity, equity, and inclusion is one of our key institutional priorities at MSU. And our mandate is an effort to really align with those values, to help ensure the safety, inclusion, respect, and accountability of all Spartans in the return to an in-person campus experience. And I think we all know that bias can go both ways towards those who wear masks and those who don't wear masks, towards who those who are vaccinated and those who aren't vaccinated.

And even though we have mandated vaccinations and indoor mask-wearing, there still may be stigmas based on perceived status and identity. For example, someone may not be able to get vaccinated based on a pre-existing medical condition, or someone may prefer to wear a mask in all spaces on campus because they have young children or are caregiving for elders at home or are immunocompromised.

We must approach this situation as humanely as possible, whether in the classroom, residence halls, or on the banks of the Red Cedar. Empathy is so important at this moment in time. We really have to remember we are Spartans and we are all in this together.

Dr. Bennett:

Thanks so much for that response, President Stanley, and also your mention of empathy, which is keenly important along with everything else we've been talking about. So we are now going to transition into a Q&A segment to answer questions that we've received from you. So I'll ask each of our panelists at least one question to start. And President Stanley, I'm going to ask you the first one. Can you tell me and tell the audience, why is it important for even those who have recovered from COVID-19 to get vaccinated?

President Stanley:

We agree with CDC data, which shows that even those who have been previously infected should still get vaccinated. We don't know how long antibodies can or might protect a person against future infection after they've had COVID-19. And studies showed that these safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines provide a strong boost of immunity in those who have previously had COVID-19. And this is one case where the immunity induced by vaccination actually appears superior than the immunity induced by natural infection. So therefore anyone who's had COVID-19 should still get vaccinated afterwards.

Thank you, President Stanley. Dr. Lang, I now have a question for you. How will supervisors proceed with staff that have not been vaccinated or granted a waiver by September 1st. Will any guidelines be provided by employee relations?

Dr. Lang:

Yes. Thank you, Dr. Bennett. What we will do is that both MSU HR and academic HR will refer non-compliant employees to the appropriate unit leadership to initiate the applicable disciplinary measures through existing processes. So we will be working with the unit HR individuals.

Dr. Bennett:

Thank you, Dr. Lang, that's very good to know. Mr. Fanning, a question for you. For employees that don't have a need to work on-site, should they continue to work remotely to reduce the number of individuals on campus?

Mr. Fanning:

Thank you, Dr. Bennett, for that question. Employees should continue to work in the manner that they've arranged with their supervisors. Because again, we are going to be requiring participation either through vaccination or obtaining an exemption for even those employees who are working remotely.

Dr. Bennett:

Thanks so much, Mr. Fanning, that's very helpful. Very helpful. Dr. Beauchamp, I have a question for you now. Will MSU be bringing back clinical diagnostic testing, like what was available at Spartan stadium last year?

Dr. Beauchamp:

Thank you, Dr. Bennett. Currently, testing is only available on campus through the early-detection program and at the Olin Health Center. The good news is there are multiple testing locations within several miles of campus. And we're confident with the EDP, Olin Health, and these testing centers, we will be able to more than meet the needs of faculty, students, and staff. But like with everything, we'll continue to monitor it and if we have to upscale, we certainly will.

Dr. Bennett:

Thanks so much for that. And while I have you, I have another question I'd like for you to address as well. What are the quarantine protocols for our classrooms? How will faculty be notified if a student has contracted COVID and can't attend class? Will we be expected to test in quarantine? Will our courses go remote if we're exposed?

Dr. Beauchamp:

Thank you, Dr. Bennett, I appreciate the many components of that question. It's really important to faculty, students, and staff and it's clearly a balance with respecting the medical information and the privacy of individuals with COVID. So the approach will be the university physician, in conjunction with the county health department, will notify all known close contacts of an individual who has tested positive for COVID-19. So that notification will only go to the close contacts.

Now, those close contacts who have been unvaccinated, they haven't received a vaccination, those individuals will be required to quarantine for up to 14 days. Now, for those that are vaccinated, they'll need to self-monitor for symptoms for 14 days, but they will not need to quarantine. And all of that is in accordance with CDC guidelines.

Now, in terms of communication to the faculty, that really will only be necessary if the student requires accommodation, and it will be up to the student to have that discussion with the faculty. There are no requirements for faculty members, importantly, to transition their entire class remotely if someone in their class has tested positive. So it really will follow established protocols for contact tracing.

Dr. Bennett:

Thank you for those very clear answers to a complex question. I appreciate it. Next question is directed to Mr. Fanning, but Dr. Lang, if you would like to add anything afterward, I welcome you to do so. So Mr. Fanning, will supervisors receive a list of employees who have not verified their vaccine status or who have not been approved for a waiver?

Mr. Fanning:

Thank you, Dr. Bennett. Not necessarily, no. The plan is for employees to be given some degree of warning before we move to any kind of more formal discipline process. Following that, at that point, both HR and the office of employee relations will be working with the units, including supervisors, on those employees who are not in compliance, meaning that they have not either been vaccinated and attested to that through the appropriate form being submitted or having obtained an exemption through that process.

At that point, supervisors could become involved in that process in those unfortunate cases where the university needs to move forward with more formal discipline. But I think the hope and, really, the expectation is that as Spartans learn about this and learn about the importance of keeping our campus safe, that we'll be able to avoid any of those kinds of cases. But we will be prepared to move forward if that's necessary.

Dr. Bennett:

Thank you, Mr. Fanning. Very helpful for supervisors to know. And Dr. Lang, is there anything you'd like to add from the academic human resources perspective to this question?

Dr. Lang:

I think that I agree with Mr. Fanning. Our hope is that people will go ahead and get vaccinated. We do have a system for reminding individuals who are not yet vaccinated to apply for the two limited exemptions. And if they are not approved, they need to go ahead and be vaccinated. And our hope is that our reminders will be sufficient in encouraging people to be vaccinated.

Dr. Bennett:

Thank you both for that answer. I know this is reassuring to supervisors who may be staff and faculty as well. So thank you very much. President Stanley, I have one more question for you. Is MSU considering requiring that visitors and guests to campus be vaccinated like employees and students?


President Stanley:

Dr. Bennett, we've talked about this, but at this time we're not requiring vaccinations of visitors or guests. One of the reasons is that, of course, it would be incredibly difficult and time-intensive to track and enforce in an equitable fashion. We believe it is important to ensure our Spartan community, students, faculty, and staff are vaccinated, which make up the vast majority of individuals coming to our campus.

Dr. Bennett:

Thank you for that. Thank you very much. And Dr. Beauchamp, a question for you. How will MSU verify vaccination status and ensure students, faculty, and staff aren't falsifying information.

Dr. Beauchamp:

Thank you, Dr. Bennett; really important. So much of who we are and how we'll be successful has to be built on a culture of trust. What we are asking is for individuals to self-report their status: faculty, staff, and students. We will have the ability, and we communicate this at the time that individuals provide their status to confirm, because there may be some occasions where we are required to seek additional information about confirming status, particularly as it goes to the need to keep the campus safe and respond to individuals coming down with the virus.

Importantly, we want people to know that the information will be kept secure and it will only be reviewed by MSU leadership and public health professionals. We want individuals to know that personally identified information will not be shared with the public, with faculty, with classmates, or supervisors. So we really do ask that everyone fill this out because it's just another key tool in keeping the campus safe.

Dr. Bennett:

Thanks so much for that answer, and also just underscoring how we're working to ensure the privacy of individuals throughout this process but, again, while thinking about the broader community safety.

Dr. Bennett:

I want to thank all of you: President Stanley, Dr. Beauchamp, Dr. Lang, and Mr. Fanning. You have certainly provided us with some critical information and insights as well into the requirements and MSU's plans for mitigating risks this fall, all in an effort to keep Spartans healthy and safe. So thank you each for joining us today.

And to the listeners, thank you for tuning in. I know we weren't able to get to all the questions submitted to the town hall in the limited time we had, but over the next week we'll work hard to address some of these commonly asked questions we've received on the university's Together We Will website. Thank you for joining us, and I'd like to welcome back President Stanley for his final remarks. 

President Stanley:

Thank you, Dr. Bennett. And I also want to thank our other panelists today: executive vice president for health sciences, Dr. Norm Beauchamp; associate provost and vice president for academic human resources, Suzanne Lang; and human resources interim associate vice president and director of the office of employee relations, Rick Fanning. This has been an important conversation to have, and I hope we provided information and perspectives that faculty and staff members will find helpful.

I'll just conclude by emphasizing the importance of all of us doing the things we discussed to help keep ourselves and those around us safe, and you have extra consideration and understanding as we all readjust to this new academic year and, for many, a return to our workplaces.

So thanks to those working hard to prepare our campus for the return of students and employees and those who've been coming to work for the last 18 months. Thanks also to the faculty members who pivoted to remote learning. All of us have been working on these challenges together. So thank each and every one of you for your dedication to MSU.