First, let me send my thoughts and prayers to all of you who have family, friends and loved ones in the Ukraine. There is nothing I can say or do to reduce the fear and sadness many of you are feeling. I simply hope you know that I care and am thinking of you.
In addition to the devastation of war, we are navigating a particularly tumultuous phase of the COVID-19 pandemic. First, let us all recognize that there is good news to celebrate on the COVID front. Our community has seen dramatic drops in the numbers of COVID-19 cases since the Omicron variant caused record levels of transmission over the holidays. We are now at levels lower than at the start of the Omicron surge and still trending downward. We also have continued to get reassuring data throughout the Omicron surge that severe illness is very rare for most people who are up to date with their COVID-19 vaccinations. Very recently, there is also evidence that vaccination significantly reduces the risk of developing long-COVID.
Despite the emerging optimism, there are still important reasons to remain cautious. While the transmission rates are coming down, there is still a moderate level of spread and a measurable risk that we can come into contact with COVID-19 in our daily interactions. Importantly, there are many people who remain vulnerable to the possibility of more serious COVID-19, including those with severely compromised immune systems, those over age 65, and children under age 5 who are not yet eligible to be vaccinated. There are also many more people who, even if they are not at elevated risk for severe illness, may live with or care for someone who is, or may have other reasons for a high level of concern about getting COVID.
Before vaccines were available, universal masking requirements were necessary to prevent serious illness and deaths. Once vaccines became widely available but transmission rates remained high, universal masking served as an important public health tool to reduce the risk of large-scale disruptions to daily operations in our core missions of research and education, and reduced the risk that our healthcare system would be overwhelmed. Masks are still an important tool for personal safety.
The CDC on Friday altered their guidance to say that universal masking requirements are not necessary to prevent a public health crisis in places where hospital systems are not overwhelmed and case rates are less than 200/ 100,000 people- St Louis fits within this group. Individual jurisdictions or institutions may still decide requirements are necessary depending on local conditions. While mask requirements are being relaxed in the County and soon City, we need to recognize the different perspectives of individuals on this campus as we move forward. WashU is a community that cares for each other and the community we work in. As we progressively pull back COVID mitigation on campus in coming weeks and individuals make personal decisions about masking, we must also focus on how we care for each other, even if our own risk perceptions and tolerances are different from our colleagues. To do this, the following things need to be adhered to:
- STAY HOME IF SICK;
- Even after universal indoor masking requirements are relaxed, it will still be recommended until transmission drops to low levels and remains an excellent tool for personal protection;
- Never shame someone or make assumptions about them because they choose to wear a mask or say no to a social engagement;
- If you know a colleague or co-worker is at higher risk or cares for others at higher risk, support them, and wear a mask even if the rules don’t require it.
We are in yet another time of change- this one for better overall, but it will not be without angst and fear. Please care for each other and yourself in the process. And begin to prepare personally for policy changes in coming days and weeks to our COVID mitigation requirements.