Story by Rahul Kalvapalle, U of T News
The University of Toronto will require students, faculty, staff and librarians who participate in activities that carry a higher risk of COVID-19 transmission to be vaccinated – and require all community members to self-declare their vaccination status.
Varsity sports, music instruction and educational placements are among the activities that may be considered high risk, requiring participants to have received a full course of vaccine. The list of activities that require vaccination may change or be updated, and individuals can apply for an exemption.
Professor Sal Spadafora, special adviser to the president on COVID-19 and senior adviser to the dean of the Temerty Faculty of Medicine, said the new measure is part of U of T’s plans for a safe return to campus this fall and follows consultations with Toronto Public Health, Peel Public Health and experts within the university community.
“We consulted both agencies to ratify the areas we’re thinking about and to start looking at other areas,” Spadafora said.
“These activities [sports, music and placements] are what come to the surface first, and we will respond to requests from our academic and administrative leaders for assessment of other activities.”
The vaccine requirement for high-risk activities will complement existing vaccination requirements for students living in residence, as well as other safety measures being implemented by the university across its three campuses such as wearing masks indoors, improved ventilation of buildings, enhanced cleaning protocols and rapid testing programs.
“Vaccination is a key component to fight COVID-19, and the reason vaccination is so important is that it provides the best protection from COVID-19 – obviously, you can’t spread what you’re not infected with,” Spadafora said. “Almost all new cases of COVID-19 are amongst unvaccinated individuals. But no one measure is the perfect solution to the problem. All of the measures, in addition to vaccination, are very important.”
Professor Trevor Young, U of T’s acting vice-president and provost and dean of the Temerty Faculty of Medicine, said the decision to require vaccination for a narrow set of high-risk activities was taken after the Ontario government indicated it will not mandate vaccination in the province.
“As of now, the province has not made vaccinations mandatory for any sector, including health-care workers. If that changes, we will definitely look to adopt those measures,” said Young. “In the absence of a critical legal framework and supporting tools like a digital vaccination record or passport, we will follow the example of partner organizations such as the University Health Network (UHN).”
Young noted that U of T has partnered closely with UHN on several aspects of its COVID-19 response, including hosting a vaccination clinic on the St. George campus.
“As well, the process for requiring vaccination for students in residences ran very smoothly, so we will adopt the principles of that approach for these new activities,” he said.
Members of the university community – including faculty, staff, librarians and students – will also be required to self-declare their vaccination status using the UCheck platform. The anonymous, aggregate data on vaccination status, by campus, will be used to inform health and safety measures at the university.
Those who indicate “yes” must have been fully vaccinated for at least 14 days. Community members who respond “no” or “prefer not to say” will be provided with information about vaccination, booking appointments and other public health measures.
Additionally, those who don’t answer “yes” will be directed to a rapid screening program that will provide them with rapid screening kits. They will be expected to screen themselves at home twice a week and will be expected to have a negative result within 72 hours before coming to campus. Anyone who has a positive result is required to report it through the university’s occupational health nurse at firstname.lastname@example.org, confirm the result with a PCR test and self-isolate as directed.
More details on rapid screening will be provided to the U of T community in the coming weeks.
Spadafora said U of T will work with members of the university community who may be hesitant to get vaccinated.
“There’s a multitude of reasons why people might be hesitant, so we’re hoping to have a broad strategy of education to help bring people the right information and assist them,” he said. “We’re going to try to meet people where they are on vaccine availability and education, bridging the gap to help those who are hesitant and facilitate self-testing and monitoring for those who aren’t vaccinated.”
Spadafora added that there’s good reason to be optimistic about the U of T community’s vaccination rates, noting Ontario’s two-dose vaccination rate is more than 60 per cent and the single-dose rate is more than 80 per cent. Even better, he said, those in the 18-24 age cohort in Toronto are demonstrating strong vaccine enthusiasm, with 94 per cent indicating they have received at least one dose. As for international students who may still need to be vaccinated upon arriving in Canada, Spadafora said they will be guided to clinics as part of their quarantine and orientation protocols.
He also noted that, in general, people with higher levels of education are more likely to be vaccinated.
“We anticipate that the university will be well-covered in terms of vaccination, and that the numbers are going to be fairly high. I believe that collecting data in aggregate, by campus, will help us verify that and might be comforting to folks,” Spadafora said.
“But if we do find that we are surprised by the numbers, we will need to go back and double down on our efforts around education, access to shots and figure out why people aren’t vaccinated so we can find a way to meet their needs.”