Preparing for Winter Quarter

To: Members of the University Community
From: Robert J. Zimmer, President, and Ka Yee C. Lee, Provost
Subject: Preparing for Winter Quarter
Date: January 4, 2021

As the University community prepares for the start of Winter Quarter on January 11, we are writing to outline some of the work needed in the months ahead to build upon the intensive efforts that allowed for a successful Autumn Quarter in the context of COVID-19.

Individuals from all parts of the University contributed to extensive planning for a safe return to campus last autumn, and all of us modified our behavior to help limit the spread of COVID-19. This enormous effort worked largely as intended, with no known transmission via classrooms. Your dedication has enabled us to meet one of the greatest public health challenges in the University’s history, and we hope you take pride in that.

We are entering a new phase of the pandemic, which will require continued care and diligence as we seek to curb and ultimately defeat the virus. Two vaccines have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for emergency use, and the first stages of nationwide distribution are underway with both federal and state-level guidance.  But in spite of the emergence of vaccines and their potential, we cannot let down our guard with respect to behavior that comports with dealing with the public health crisis. On the contrary, maintaining the precautions outlined in the UChicago Health Pact and the Winter Quarter attestation is essential to making progress in the months ahead. The following considerations are particularly important:

Vaccine Update:  At the University Chicago Medicine (UCM), the first vaccine recipients in December were healthcare workers who work directly with patients, in accordance with guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for Phase 1a of vaccination. Following the Phase 1a guidance, the next wave of vaccinations has gone to those with indirect contact with patients or who play roles in fulfilling the overall missions of the medical center, including faculty, students and staff in the Division of Biological Sciences. Public health vaccination guidelines include these populations in part because of their potential for contact with clinical staff or infected materials. In all, more than 7,700 clinical and research personnel have received the vaccine or have scheduled vaccination appointments.

As we begin to develop plans for further vaccine distribution among the University community we will continue to follow CDC and state guidance. Based on the CDC’s most recent recommendations, we anticipate that University employees will have access to vaccinations as part of Phase 1b of vaccine distribution, which includes essential workers such as “those who work in the education sector.” Although such vaccine allocation regulations are set by federal and state authorities, our commitment of medical care includes the communities of the South Side, and we will do all we can to facilitate vaccine access for South Side residents while following public health regulations and guidelines. We have convened a group of University leaders to work in consultation with UCM to establish vaccine allocation policies for University personnel who will be part of Phase 1b. We will provide a separate update on these plans soon.

Although these are encouraging steps, please bear in mind that it could take months to achieve a nationwide rollout for everyone who wishes to receive the vaccine.  To date, the Illinois and Chicago Departments of Public Health have been responsible for vaccine allocation.  It is not yet known how Phase 1b will be coordinated. We are following the situation very closely and will provide regular updates as new information becomes available.  We are committed to expending every effort to ensure that our faculty, students, staff and members of our broader community have access to the vaccine as soon as possible, as every vaccine given to a member of this community serves to keep us all safer.  We ask for your continued patience and understanding as this rapidly evolving rollout proceeds.

Heightened Risk This Winter: The case count and death toll in the U.S. from COVID-19 have been at record high levels over the last month. This is a particular concern during the coldest winter months, when more people will stay inside in spaces where the virus can spread if we do not follow strict precautions. Fortunately, our experience has confirmed that our campus-wide preparations and the precautions outlined in the UChicago Health Pact are highly effective in limiting the spread of COVID-19. But we must continue to adhere to those requirements as long as the pandemic lasts.

Transitioning to Campus: We have asked everyone who is returning to campus or arriving for the first time to observe a seven-day transition period before coming to campus. This means avoiding unnecessary contacts and following a “stay at home” routine before you travel. During this period of increased caseloads nationwide, it may take extra effort to establish a low level of viral spread.

Opportunity to Register for Voluntary Testing: Registration will begin soon for additional people who wish to participate in the University’s existing Voluntary Surveillance Testing Program, which launched in the fall. Capacity for new enrollments may be limited. Those who already enrolled in the program in the fall do not need to take additional action to take part this quarter. People who have not yet taken part but are eligible to enroll will receive more information in the next week.

With our shared commitment and in partnership with neighbors on the South Side and across the city, we are confident the University community will emerge from this difficult period with renewed care for one another. For more information, please visit UChicago Forward.