by ABIGAIL SLAUGHTER
Many on-campus personnel at the University of Mary Washington believed their chance to receive the COVID vaccine had arrived. Unfortunately, news regarding professors receiving the vaccine added to the confusion surrounding the next steps for the university.
University faculty and staff received an email on Jan. 15 that told professors they could register as front line essential workers and encouraged them to get the COVID-19 vaccine. However, just days later on Jan. 20 at a Board of Visitors meeting, faculty and staff were informed that they could not register nor receive the COVID-19 vaccine at this time. This led to a substantial amount of confusion amongst faculty and staff about available immunizations.
“There is so much misinformation about that email,” said Dr. Kim Gower, an assistant professor in the College of Business.
With a great deal of talk amongst university faculty and staff about eligibility for their first doses, Gower conducted her own research about Virginia’s plan to vaccinate various groups of people across the state. She discovered a distinction between college professors’ and K-12 teachers’ abilities to receive their shots.
Dr. Joe Nicholas, an associate professor of geography, also struggled with navigating the rollout of vaccines for college professors.
“I remember hearing colleagues say that there was some confusion because [the email] indicated that they could register, and yet other sources said that we were not approved to get the vaccine that early,” said Nicholas. He tried to register for a COVID-19 vaccine, but his attempt was unsuccessful as the link included in the Jan. 15 email was no longer functioning properly and did not give him slots to sign up for his dose.
The Mary Washington Healthcare system first alerted the COVID-19 task force that university faculty and staff could receive their vaccine by registering as members of a specific classification that vaccinates those working in education. However, Virginia is currently in phase 1b of its COVID-19 vaccination plan, which aims to vaccinate K-12 teachers and staff but excludes university faculty or staff from receiving their dose until further notice.
Jeff McClurken, one of the co-coordinators of the COVID-19 implementation team, has been advocating for UMW faculty to get the vaccine as soon as possible. He described the process of determining what faculty qualify for their vaccine as a “moving target,” and he and the rest of the COVID-19 task force are trying to navigate the Virginia Department of Health’s complex prioritization process.
“Because there’s a limited supply, the state and the federal government have to offer these priorities, but are not clear about the nuances,” said McClurken. These nuances, like having the same groups of people listed under multiple phases of the vaccination plan, have made it much more difficult for the task force to determine who is eligible for their immunizations and when universities can get them.
“Our goal is to try and advocate for our people as much as possible,” McClurken said.
Distribution of the vaccine is in the hands of the Virginia Department of Health, so the task force can only work with local health officials to see when faculty and staff can get vaccinated and wait until they get approval from the state. The university is not sure when that opportunity will come, and the task force is constantly monitoring the state’s distribution of its vaccines and the changing circumstances surrounding who is eligible for their dose.
“It’s hard to know, from day to day, what the status is of the vaccine,” said University President Troy Paino. He communicates regularly with UMW’s COVID-19 task force, overseeing the containment of the virus and monitoring its spread across campus. Keeping close contact with the Virginia Department of Health and his presidential colleagues across the state, the university stays updated on any new developments regarding the virus. However, despite daily updates from health experts, information the university receives often changes within 24 hours, at times inhibiting clear and accurate communication between the COVID task force and faculty.
The university has utilized the COVID-19 task force since the release of #ForwardUMW, working with local health officials over the past few months about coordinating vaccines and making other key decisions about the university’s management of the spread of the virus. Jeff McClurken and Tim O’Donnell, another co-coordinator on the COVID task force, have been sending out weekly updates, keeping faculty and staff informed and prepared for any changes to the university’s plans.
With the start of a new semester, the university will face its fair share of challenges, both new and old.
“I wish we could guarantee a certain time faculty and staff get the vaccine,” said Paino. “We’re hopeful that things are going to get smoother in the days and weeks to come.”