How a university achieved an immunization rate of over 90% |

Tulane President Mike Fitts discusses the school’s successes and strategies during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fourth-year students Krishna Navaratnam and Didi Ikeji take a walk on campus in March. (Photo courtesy of Tulane University)

October 28, 2020: Just two months after it reopened during the COVID-19 pandemic, the eye of Category 3 Hurricane Zeta passed over New Orleans and Tulane University.

Tulane President Mike Fitts

President Mike Fitts recalls that this is “probably the biggest challenge” of a thoughtful and unusual academic year. “I’m not sure if another university has had to deal with COVID plus the eye of a hurricane,” he said. “It was definitely a special moment as we took shelter in place and walked through it.”

The green wave did it, brilliantly. Tulane has managed to accommodate 85% of its ground lessons during the year while keeping its COVID count low. From robust testing (500,000 in total) to building 19 new classrooms to accommodate social distancing, Tulane has become a model of success for other institutions. Its COVID scoreboard has even been ranked among the top five in the country.

But 2021-2022 will certainly present new challenges for this research-rich institution, says Fitts. Variants of COVID are circulating, the number of positive cases in Louisiana is very high, and expectations of reopening are even higher. But Tulane has a major asset that will keep operations close to normal.

“We have well over 95% of our students and well over 90% of our faculty [vaccinated]Says Fitts, who notes that while a vaccination mandate is in place for students, it is not for employees. “When the students come back to campus, they’ll be doing more of the stuff we used to do [in 2019]. When we came back last year, I think everyone was wondering, are we going to be able to last a year on the ground? And we were able to do it. I don’t think anyone doubts our ability to do it now. “

Fitts says students will be tested before they arrive on campus and again when they arrive at Tulane. The few who are not vaccinated will be tested twice a week. All must wear masks indoors, according to a mandate issued by the city of New Orleans on July 30. Classes start on August 23.

Tulane, the trendsetter

Over the past month, the state of Louisiana has gone from less than 1,000 COVID cases per day to more than 16,000 today. Along with Florida and Missouri, it remains one of the main hot spots for new cases. New Orleans is in the eye of the storm again, although it has been more successful in getting people vaccinated than the state (just 37%.)

Tulane’s ability to have its population vaccinated and almost immune to severe cases of COVID is a blessing, so much so that Fitts says even with the rates rising, “I don’t think there is the same. concern [at Tulane] that there was maybe last year. Tulane has around 4,500 undergraduate students living on campus, and much of its remaining population, including graduate students, lives primarily near the university in the upper city neighborhoods.

Of course, if the situation deteriorates, Tulane has a plan. “We can still, if need be, have socially distanced classes. We have a space of isolation, ”he said.

So how did they fare in 2020-21? The first step was to rely on the speakers, including the housing manager who offered the university students to test off site before arriving. That’s what Tulane did, in a convention hotel, he actually took over. Other useful strategies have been implemented.

“We have communicated very intensely the value of vaccines throughout the community,” said Fitts. “And towards the end of the school year, we told the employees, you did a great job, so we’re just going to give everyone a $ 500 bonus for great work. But we have conditioned this bonus on their vaccination. It was for their efforts, but we said it was because they stood up for the community, and the vaccine for the community as well. Then we continued to communicate its importance and why the vaccination was effective. Tulane is a tight-knit community. I think people thought it was part of their obligation to this community to get vaccinated. “

Look back, look ahead

Despite the challenges, surprising results occurred on the Tulane campus during the pandemic.

The first was the power to provide in-person learning. “What’s fascinating is, in many ways, that we came out of last year’s pandemic stronger than when we entered it,” he says. “The health of the community has been maintained. Our positivity rates were much lower than in New Orleans. There were these predictions in advance of how the university model was going to change; everything would go online. It’s true that things happened online, but we also understood how important being here was. We have seen a dramatic increase in applications, selectivity, yield, etc. The students want to be in New Orleans. They want to be in Tulane, and they want to be part of this community.

The second was the continuation of the initiatives planned before the pandemic. “We are building a new undergraduate quadrangle, a residential learning community called The Village. We will bring 1,000 students back to campus to live. Construction continued throughout the pandemic. The fact that our students wanted to come back and felt it was so important to organize field classes reaffirmed the decision to build this undergraduate community. We are also building a new science and engineering building. Much of the research we did during this time was on the pandemic and on infectious disease issues. So this reaffirmed the importance of the research we are doing.

The third was the reaction of the students. “They stepped up. They wore masks. Everyone thought the students would be the ones in New Orleans who didn’t follow the rules. They really took it seriously.

Another element of Tulane’s success that cannot be ignored is Fitts’ experience, not just as a leader at Tulane since 2014. He has extensive legal experience: Professor of Law at Tulane, Dean of Law School of the University of Pennsylvania, president of the American Law Deans Association – which could be deemed particularly vital at this time of crisis, especially when it comes to issues around COVID-19, vaccinations and the like. While this legal expertise helped, it was “not as you think”.

“My legal training, I think, was very useful… lawyers are good at thinking about the intricacies of complex issues where there are a lot of different things coming together,” he says. “Being able to analyze every part of it and understand how they interact. If you’re an engineer, it’s all an engineering problem. If you are a doctor, everything is a health problem. Lawyers reflect on the complexity of decision making. The pandemic was a medical problem. It was a financial problem. It was a public health problem. There were political issues and legal issues. There were social problems. And in a way, you had to tackle them all. And I think being a lawyer made me realize how much all of these different factors need to be taken into account.

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