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September 9, 2022: COVID-19 Masking Requirement Update and New Booster

Dear Members of the Whitman Community,

Congratulations on a successful start to the academic year.  It’s wonderful to have our campus community back together learning and gathering for campus events. I want to thank everyone for their diligence masking and distancing when possible during the first few weeks on campus.

As you can imagine, we have been closely tracking the COVID-19 cases on campus along with the COVID-19 cases in the Walla Walla community and are encouraged by what we have seen in the past few weeks. As you might have read on Whitman’s COVID Dashboard that is updated each Monday, we saw 16 COVID-19 cases in our community in both the first and second week on campus. Further we have not seen any outbreaks or clusters linked to particular residence halls, classes or groups. These trends are in line with what our consulting epidemiologist would expect based on what he has seen at other schools our size, where we are in the trajectory of the pandemic, and the mitigation efforts we have put into place so far. The CDC puts Walla Walla County’s COVID-19 “Community Level” at medium right now. 

Masking On Campus 

As has been the case throughout the pandemic, our priority is to provide the fullest possible campus experience for our students, while also protecting the health of our community and the greater Walla Walla community. Based on what we have seen in the first few weeks, college and faculty leadership in consultation with our epidemiologist have decided to return to a mask-optional policy for indoor public spaces effective immediately. In classrooms, faculty will have the choice to continue requiring masks or making them optional.

Each person should consider their own risk factors to decide if masking remains part of their COVID-19 protective practices. Anyone who wants to continue wearing a mask is encouraged to do so and we will continue to provide them on request. We also ask that you always have a mask with you in case you are requested to wear one. We want to do what we can to help protect those within our community who may be immunocompromised or have other health risk factors and well-fitting, N95 or equivalent masks are still one of the best tools we have to prevent transmission of the virus. It is our hope that everyone will feel comfortable making their individual choice while keeping the well-being of our community in mind — and trusting that others are doing the same. 

As we move toward the cooler winter months and have fewer opportunities to move our gatherings outside, we will likely see spikes in COVID-19 that could necessitate reinstating a mask mandate for indoor spaces. We will continue to closely monitor numbers to identify campus trends and respond as quickly as possible. In the meantime, if you have to move an event indoors, please try to use a large space when possible, distance when you can, and open windows if the weather allows.

As a reminder, we will continue to take the following steps to support the health and well-being of our community:

  • Providing COVID-19 self-tests and masks for students and employees 

  • Contact tracing for people who are exposed to COVID-19 at Whitman

  • Providing on-campus isolation space and support for students

  • Requiring vaccines and boosters for campus members and visitors

New Booster Requirement

Just last week, the CDC officially recommended the new COVID-19 boosters by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna after they were approved for emergency use by the Food and Drug Administration. The updated COVID-19 boosters were created to specifically target the recent and more transmissible Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 variants and can help restore protection that has waned since previous vaccinations. 

The CDC’s definition of being “up-to-date” on COVID-19 vaccinations now includes this new booster. For that reason, we are requiring all eligible faculty, staff and students to receive the new COVID-19 booster by December 31st or receive an approved booster exemption. This timeline will allow the booster to be fully effective by the start of the Spring Semester. If you are able, we encourage faculty, staff and students to get the booster even sooner.  It is available at several local pharmacies right now and we will share a more comprehensive list of booster availability when it becomes available. We will also provide more information about how to report your booster in the coming weeks.

Exemptions to the latest COVID-19  booster will continue to be offered for students, faculty and staff for medical and religious reasons as well as for those who wish to delay getting the booster until it is no longer under emergency use authorization. If you have already applied for a medical or religious exemption you do not need to apply again. If you would like to apply for an exemption based on the emergency use authorization, the expectation is that you will make arrangements to receive the vaccine once it is fully authorized. We will share more information on how to apply for a booster exemption in the coming weeks.

We will encourage visitors to campus events to be up-to-date on COVID vaccinations, however we will continue our practice of not checking the vaccination status of visitors. Because the greatest risk of COVID spread is within our residential community, and because organized campus events present less of a risk, the booster will be recommended but not required. 

Staff and Faculty Dining

Now that we are a few weeks into the semester, we would also like to invite faculty and staff to dine with students in Cleveland Commons. To cut down on crowding, we do ask that employees avoid dining Mondays, Wednesday, and Fridays between 11:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. which are the busiest times in Cleveland. We are happy to again open this important community gathering space to our entire Whitman Community.

While we continue to progress toward daily life with fewer restrictions, it’s important to remember the reasons why we are able to do so. In the past year and a half, COVID-19 vaccines have been shown to be highly effective in preventing serious illness and death, reducing symptoms and decreasing transmission of the virus. We also know that the protection offered by the vaccines decreases over time. That is why the new boosters are so important as we move forward into the rest of the year and the cooler months that will inevitably send us inside in closer spaces.

Peter Harvey
Chair, Coronavirus Task Force

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