Public health forum seeks to dispel student concerns

October 28, 2021

Illustration by Deborah Han

A virtual undergraduate public health forum was hosted by Provost Bob Groves to update students on COVID-19 policies, flu cases, and the recent gastrointestinal (GI) outbreak on campus on Oct. 13. Dr. Ranit Mishori, Georgetown’s Chief Public Health Officer, presented information relating to student health and answered a variety of questions amidst student concerns about poor communication and accommodations for illnesses.

“The D.C. Department of Health worked very closely with us. They did two inspections of Leo’s and other eating venues,” Mishori said at the forum. “I want you to know that there is zero evidence that Leo’s was the source of the [GI] infections.” 

Mishori’s presentation began with a discussion of “congregate settings,” defined as areas in which individuals remain in close proximity for an extended period of time. Since college campuses fall into this category, there are certain risks in terms of disease control, Mishori said.

Despite these concerns, the forum emphasized the success of Georgetown’s COVID-19 vaccine requirement. According to Mishori, 97.66 percent of students (and 99.82 percent of undergraduates) on campus are fully vaccinated. 

“[Vaccinations] and the masking and the ventilation that we’ve been working on are the three measures that have helped keep the numbers of infections on campus to a very low level,” Mishori said.

Mishori added that there have been no recorded positive cases directly as a result of in-class transmission of the virus. Rather, COVID-19 cases have been widely attributed to social gatherings and student traveling, according to Mishori.

“If you’re concerned, put your mask on even if you’re going to a party or a bar or restaurant and remember that this is where most people in the District, in general and on our campus, get their infections,” Mishori said.

At the time of the student health forum, there were approximately 85 confirmed cases of the flu on campus, mostly among undergraduate students. Mishori urged students to sign up for flu vaccinations either in the Leavey Center or through a third-party provider.

“All of the other mitigation efforts—no close contact, washing your hands, staying home when you’re sick, covering your mouth and nose, wearing a mask—will also help prevent transmission of the flu,” Mishori said.

The most widespread public health issue the forum addressed was the GI outbreak in September, which had over 145 recorded cases. Students’ symptoms included abdominal pain, vomiting, and nausea, lasting approximately 12 hours. Georgetown worked alongside D.C. Health to identify the source of this outbreak, yet none was found, although health experts identified two students that tested positive for norovirus.

Following Mishori’s presentation, Vice Provost for Education Rohan Williamson clarified university policy on class attendance. Williamson stated that professors are not required to allow students to attend in-person classes on Zoom, even if they are self-isolating, a policy that has met a significant amount of student backlash. However, Williamson stressed that any “punitive models” for students who miss class due to sickness or injury will be addressed.

“Do not attend class if you’re feeling ill,” Williamson said. “If you’re not feeling well, you should contact your advising dean and faculty to let them know to make arrangements to receive class materials.”

Groves and Mishori then answered questions previously submitted by students when they registered for the forum. 

Mishori responded to an inquiry about the apparent lack of sustainability at Leo’s due to COVID-19 measures, pointing to the disposable plates and utensils students are currently using. She claimed that the administration is looking at changing the way reusable materials are used in the dining hall.

“My guess is that eventually we will change [the way we use reusables], but perhaps not at this moment in time given that we’re still in the middle of the surge from Delta and a lot of people are still concerned,” Mishori said. “It is a great idea to think about sustainability and we’re definitely going to discuss changing the use of reusables at Leo’s for the spring semester.”

The panel answered live questions as well, including one about space in the Healy Family Student Center that is currently being used for COVID-19 testing. Groves answered that the administration is monitoring use of the building and will share updates once more space can be returned to student use.

Groves concluded the forum by reminding students they should not attend class if they are feeling ill and that faculty have been told to treat illnesses with compassion and keep students up-to-date with their classes.

“We’re trying to be patient and kind with each other,” Groves said. “It’s important for you to protect others when you’re not feeling well.”

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