UVa on Third-Vaccination Mandate: Trust Us

by James A. Bacon

So, the University of Virginia bumped up its deadline for students, faculty and staff to get a COVID-19 booster shot to today, one day before Glenn Youngkin, a foe of vaccination mandates, takes office. In an interview with CBS19 News, UVa spokesman Brian Coy says Youngkin’s ascension to office was not a factor in the university’s decision making. “This is what we think is necessary to keep our community safe,” he said.

What factors did go in to the university’s decision making? That’s less clear.

“This variant does pose a unique challenge, but having everybody boosted and having everybody wearing masks we believe gives us the best opportunity to have a good semester and make this year strong,” Coy said.

Coy added that UVA will be monitoring case counts, quarantine space and hospital capacity to make any decisions, and said if UVA opts to enforce other mitigation strategies, those will be announced to the community by the end of this week. (My bold)

Ah. I see. UVa will be monitoring case counts, quarantine space and hospital capacity. By implication, UVa will not be monitoring actual hospitalizations or deaths, otherwise Coy would have mentioned them.

Admittedly, that’s an inference, but the inference seems to be borne 0ut by the data displayed and not displayed on UVa’s COVID Tracker dashboard, which provides daily updates on cases, testing, and vaccinations.

The dashboard does display a graph on “new hospitalizations,” but those are hospitalizations for the UVA Health System, which includes patients from across the Blue Ridge health district. The dashboard does not reveal how many UVa students, faculty and staff are being hospitalized. It does not track deaths at all.

What data might UVa President Jim Ryan cite, should he be so inclined, to justify the accelerated booster mandate? Is the Omicron variant running out of control? Are UVa students, faculty and staff jamming the hospitals? Are people dying?

One measure is the positivity rate for COVID tests. By that metric, the positivity rate appears to have peaked several days ago and now is heading down (as seen in the graph below). It would appear that the emergency is receding without the necessity of coercing members of the UVa community to get a booster shot on top of the first two.

The declining positivity rate seems all the more significant in light of the fact that not many people are taking tests. (See the chart below.) The number of people getting tested is half the number as in the fall, when the deadlier Delta variant was working its way through the population, and a small fraction of the number a year ago. Why so few tests? Perhaps because students have only recently returned from Christmas vacation. Another possible explanation is that few people are experiencing the flu-like symptoms that would prompt a test.

COVID-19 tests, University of Virginia students, faculty, and staff.

Whatever the reason, the end result is that students, who are younger and healthier than the general population, are experiencing only a modest incidence of confirmed cases (as seen below).

Confirmed COVID-19 cases, University of Virginia students

On the other hand, the trend for faculty and staff more closely resembles the spike in confirmed cases for the general population, as seen here:

Confirmed COVID-19 cases, University of Virginia faculty and staff

What we don’t know from any of this is how severe the Omicron cases are. To be sure, UVA Health System hospitalizations have hit new highs, and that is a source of concern, especially if COVID cases are displacing other patients. However, as is evident globally, Omicron hits hard then retreats quickly, and it is milder than other variants. The latest seven-day moving average of deaths for Charlottesville (not including Albemarle County) is… zero. The number over the past month peaked at… 0.429. That was a death every other day.

To my knowledge, UVa has not reported a single death among students, faculty or staff.

Against these numbers, what do we know about the risks of side-effects from taking a third COVID shot? Nothing. The UVa dashboard does not draw from the national VAERS (Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System) database, which has reported 17,317 adverse results for Virginia as a whole (and probably represents an under-count).

What do we know about the incidence of cases, hospitalizations and deaths of students who have taken the first two mandatory vaccinations compared to those who have gotten a third? Nothing. UVa’s dashboard does not track that number.

What do we know about the incidence of cases, hospitalizations and deaths of students who have gotten the first two mandatory vaccinations plus have acquired natural immunities from a prior infection? Nothing. UVa’s dashboard does not track that number.

What does the public know about what data influenced the Ryan administration’s COVID policy deliberations? Nothing. The Ryan administration has steadfastly refused to release that information on the grounds that it is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act, and they have gone to court to defend their right to withhold it. For all I know, the administration’s stance might be justified. Unfortunately, the message that many students, parents and others get is this: you will comply with our orders. We don’t care about your personal circumstances. And we don’t owe you an explanation.