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COVID-19 restrictions ease as vaccination rollout begins

Illustration by Aimi Dickel

The Campus Reopening Team announced a general loosening of restrictions put in place to curb the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic via email on March 9 as case numbers remain low on campus and continue to fall in the surrounding community.

According to the newly announced restrictions, students can leave campus to travel into Northfield and Dundas and may seek permission for overnight trips by filling out a form through Student Life. The College remains in a yellow campus alert level per Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) recommendations.

The announcement follows St. Olaf’s second week of surveillance testing, in which there were zero positive results out of 615 tests conducted, which falls under the green alert level standard. Rice County’s 14-day case rate  dropped to 15.66 per 10,000 people as of Feb. 27, which falls under the College’s yellow alert level standard of 10 to 30 cases per 10,000 people. This is a 3.35 case decrease from the Feb. 20 recorded case numbers of 19.01 per 10,000 people in Rice County.

Enoch Blazis, the Campus Reopening Lead, explained that the College’s decision to remain in a yellow campus alert level despite a low 14-day student infection rate stems from guidance from MDH, which is currently instructing colleges to “lay low,” Blazis said. The College communicates with MDH on a weekly basis.

Assuming that student case numbers do not rise, students may wonder if the College will remain in a yellow campus alert level until Rice County cases fall below ten cases per 10,000 people. 

“I think if we see the Rice County levels go below ten again, because I think that’s one to ten per ten thousand was one of the [green alert standards], and if we are seeing consistent, low random sampling going on and our infection rates are low, I don’t know what the right time frame is to put on that but we’d probably consider green eventually. I think the next step is really to get students circulating again,” Blazis said.

The College considers factors like new COVID-19 variants and impacts of the vaccine when making this decision.

Blazis is happy that students took the reopening period seriously.

“Everybody’s really doing a tremendous job and I don’t think you see that on all campuses,” Blazis said. “I think we are being a little bit cautious, but it’s probably for the better.”

Meanwhile, Rice County approved students who fall into Phase 1a to sign up to receive a COVID-19 vaccine through the point of distribution in Faribault on Feb. 23. Prior to the update, the College provided numbers of students in these categories to the county, which mainly consists of health care workers and first responders.

A state link allows students to see if they can sign up for a testing time, but a slot is not guaranteed. Each week, there is a new link to sign up for whatever vaccines are available.

“These vaccines must be administered within three to five days of receipt by vaccine sites, so the notice for our community members is very short — typically 24 to 48 hours prior to an available clinic, but that could be even shorter. Today we received a same-day notice,” Blazis wrote in an email to the student body on Feb. 25.

Most college students, however, will wait until later this summer when vaccines are available to the general public. MDH directed the College to contact local health authorities about vaccines as they work through the first phases of distribution.

The vaccine availability timeline for healthy students at St. Olaf who do not qualify as essential workers remains unclear.

“It might take a while for the rollout, as we all observe how it’s going, so I’m not quite sure what to tell students,” Blazis said. A COVID-19 Vaccine FAQ is available through the College website.

States are responsible for their own vaccine rollout. MDH outlines the phases of Minnesota’s plan for COVID-19 vaccinations; Phase 1a includes health care personnel and long-term care residents. Phases 1b, 1c and 2 include populations at high risk for severe disease and essential workers. Pre K-12 grade educators are included, but college professors are not.

The College requested to be a closed point of distribution for vaccines, but “it doesn’t look like [Rice County is] going to move in that direction. They’re kind of going through these phases [of distribution],” Blazis said. The College is exploring potential vaccine partners such as Northfield Urgent Care.

States like Massachusetts are taking a different approach. Boston University, Northeastern University, Tufts University, University of Massachusetts, Salem State University and Harvard University are already operating as vaccine distribution centers, and the state has approved about a dozen more colleges to administer vaccines as of Feb. 1.

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