Circuit breaker and vice presidential debate webinar: What to know

In a webinar focused on the U's upcoming circuit breaker shift to online-only instruction and the vice presidential debate,  held on Monday, Sept. 21, 2020, President Ruth Watkins and other senior leaders gave an update on campus operations.

University leaders in attendance:
  • President Ruth Watkins
  • Dr. Steven Lacey, chief of the Division of Public Health, University of Utah School of Medicine
  • Jason Perry, vice president for government relations/director, Hinckley Institute of Politics
  • Dr. Dan Reed, senior vice president for Academic Affairs
  • Dr. Michael Good, senior vice president for Health Sciences
  • Chief Safety Officer Marlon Lynch
  • Dr. Diane Pataki, associate vice president for Research
  • Dr. Lori McDonald, vice president for Student Affairs

Webinar transcript

Communications Director Chris Nelson

Good afternoon, everybody. My name is Chris Nelson. I'm the communications director at the University of Utah and I want to welcome you to our first fall semester town hall. For those of you who joined us over the summer, you know that we talked a lot about the issues that were coming up in the fall semester and now we're here and we want to provide an update as we get ready to enter our fall circuit breaker and the vice presidential debate. Today, we're joined by President Ruth Watkins. We'll also hear from Dr. Steven Lacey, who is the chief of the Division of Public Health at U of U Health, as well as Vice President Jason Perry, who is chairing the U’s steering committee. We're also joined on the call today by Senior Vice President Dan Reed, Vice President Lori McDonald and our Chief Safety Officer Marlon Lynch, as well as Diane Pataki, who is our associate vice president for Research. So we'll go through some brief remarks, then we'll come back with many of the questions that were submitted. With that, President Watkins, I'll turn it over to you.

President Ruth Watkins

Great, thanks so much, and I want to start by thanking you all for everything you're doing to help us function well this fall semester. What you're doing is working and what you're encouraging is working. We are managing well and monitoring closely as we progress this fall. We want to talk a little bit about what's ahead for the next couple of weeks. At a point earlier this summer, when we were planning for the fall semester, we had planned to have a week of online-only learning and also a return to remote work during the week of the vice presidential debate. As we began to work in July, planning for the fall, and as planning evolved across the summer, our infectious disease experts and disease modelers suggested to us that a 14-day return to remote learning and work would be helpful in terms of reducing infectious disease and disease transmission.

I think you'll notice from looking at institutions around the country where their infections begin to run away from them a little bit, they're often returning to 14 days of remote learning and work on their campuses. I think the beautiful thing about our team is that people had this idea long before there was any difficulty and we plan to implement it. Dr. Steven Lacey, our division leader in public health, is going to talk a little bit more about what we have called the "circuit breaker" and what we hope happens during that time, which is as many people who can work remotely will go back to doing so, will continue to do so and that our learning returns to remote for that two-week period as well, so you'll hear a little bit more about that.

Of course, there are many other things you're doing and really doing well that are working: wearing face coverings, frequent hand washing, physical distancing, using the out-of-doors for gatherings and keeping your gathering small. That is working and the other thing that we have been doing that is helping is really responding to public health needs with symptomatic testing, with contact tracing, and we are now beginning to roll out asymptomatic randomized testing for our campus. I think that is beginning to develop as a tool. We have done a couple of beginning efforts there on asymptomatic randomized testing and that will continue in the weeks ahead. We'll talk a little bit more about that. That is designed to help us understand the prevalence of disease in the community and will involve faculty, staff and students of roughly ultimately about 600 tests a day, so we are working towards that and you can read more about that in @theU.

I'd also mentioned that our Sugar House testing site was impacted by the wind and we are working on a campus location that will make that a bit easier for people, so stay tuned. Dr. Good might talk a little bit about that. I think you also know that we are working on wastewater monitoring, as some others in the state are, and that effort is underway. We are using our talents as a research university to help us navigate this period through many, many methods. You can read about it in more detail at coronavirus.utah.edu. It remains the definitive source of information.

Now, I will tell you just a little bit of a headline about the vice presidential debate and then VP Jason Perry will take over and tell you a little bit more. We're a couple of weeks away from the national spotlight turning on Utah as we host the only vice presidential debate. We are excited about the opportunity that it presents for the university to be showcased on a very large national stage. We know there are many viewers and we know it is an enormous viewing opportunity for the university to be showcased. We also know that it's a lot of work for a lot of people and it is a tremendous inconvenience. I thank you for what you're doing to partner with us to help make that possible and please know that you are appreciated during this time.

The work to host a vice presidential debate started a year-and-a-half ago, maybe even a little bit more than that, and does matter from a civic engagement element. I think it is important for us to engage in the process and the important learning opportunity that takes place for our students and our community does matter to our democracy, so we appreciate everything you're doing to help us make this possible and we look forward to what's ahead, even as we have prepared very diligently for it.

I want to say thank you to everyone for taking a minute now and introduce our colleague, Dr. Steven Lacey, who is going to talk in a little bit more detail about the circuit breaker.

Dr. Steven Lacey

Great. Thank you, President Watkins. Good afternoon, everyone. Again, my name is Steven Lacey. I'm a faculty member in the Division of Public Health at the School of Medicine and over the past several months, I've worked closely with the President's Office and have led the Campus Incident Management Team. That's a response framework to organize people in teams that we use to help us navigate COVID. Each week, I engage with at least 100 people who are working to minimize the impact of the virus on our campus and I think this town hall is a good opportunity for me to begin to thank them for their work. I want the campus to know that our emergency managers, facilities and health and safety professionals are really best-in-class and that our campus VPs are some of the hardest working people that I've met and that our faculty members are serving as subject matter experts and team leaders that are simply getting the job done and I'm grateful for that.

President Watkins asked me to speak to the public health rationale for the upcoming two-week break. The rationale is rooted in two concepts: The first is the chain of infection and the second is virus generation time. Now, the chain of infection refers to the disease transmission cycle where there's a host, in this case a human that is infected with coronavirus, and that virus leaves that infected person, usually through droplets or aerosols during close contact, and that virus makes its way to infect a new person. The goal is to find ways to break that chain of infection and one way to break the chain is to simply prevent people from gathering and spreading the virus.

The second concept I mentioned is the virus-generation time. Generation time is the time duration from the onset of infectiousness and a primary case to the onset of infectiousness in the next case, so for COVID the generation time is approximately seven days. So a two-week break that is planned is two full cycles of generation time and of potential transmission and we can use this to break that chain of infection.

Knowing all of this, we worked with Drs. Lindsay Keegan and Russell Vinik to model a whole suite of scheduling scenarios, from delayed starts to ending the semester early to breaks in the middle of the semester. We needed to disrupt the semester but minimize the disruption to the teaching schedule, so the final decision was made to start the semester on time, leverage the planned break with the upcoming VP debate, and extend the break to two weeks to break the transmission cycle, and then to go online after Thanksgiving. I think this approach is going to serve us well.

President Ruth Watkins

Thanks very much, Steven. Appreciate it. So glad you're here. You joined us just in time. Now, I'm going to send us over to Vice President Jason Perry who can talk in a little bit more detail about the debate ahead.

VP Jason Perry

Thanks, President. I'm glad to have you all here in this town hall as we talk about the vice presidential debate. President Watkins asked me to spend a minute on how we got this debate here and some of the efforts underway. I think it's important to note that this effort started well over a year-and-a-half ago when the state of Utah, through our Legislature and legislative leadership and the Utah Debate Commission, partnered with the University of Utah to submit a bid for the state of Utah to host this at the University of Utah.

At the time, there were the three presidential debates and one vice presidential debate. When you submit your bid for one of these events, you don't know which one you're going to get and we were curious what that would be and it turns out by having the vice presidential debate here at the University of Utah is become the one most interesting event in the whole country, in fact, in the world. This is the one everyone is interested in. This is the only vice presidential debate that is going to occur. We get to see these candidates on the stage answering questions about policy, so this is something that's a significant thing for us.

As President Watkins mentioned at the outset, this is the world looking at the University of Utah. Over 100 million people will be watching this particular event and it is one of those events where it's just a critical part of our democracy, a critical part of this republic that we're a part of, and it's what we are trying to make sure is beneficial to our students. We do realize there is some inconvenience and there will be for a little while and we're hoping to balance that inconvenience against the good—not just for the state of Utah, but also for the ability to promote the University of Utah throughout the world, but we've been making a lot of effort to make sure that this is a student-centered debate.

Everyone that comes to me, even now, saying, "How do I get a ticket?" You can't get a ticket is the reality to this. Not only is it controlled by someone else—the Commission on Presidential Debates—but President Watkins made the decision that what tickets we do have will be given to students and we'll be having a lottery for the students. We have students that have already registered their interest in being part of this lottery. President Watkins will help randomly select those students, every ticket. She does not have a ticket. President Watkins has already given hers to the pool for the students. I think it's just important to note we are doing everything we can to make sure that the students are part of this event—from the ushers to the volunteers to the people that are sitting in the seats, they will be students.

One more note I thought I should mention as we talk about the benefit to the university. Not only is it just important that we understand as part of the voting process, but we have been able to work with departments and colleges all over campus to implement this debate into their curriculums. From our math students to our architecture students to, of course, political science, people all over campus are talking about this debate and what it means to our society, so we're really trying to make sure that everything we do, which is our core mission, particularly through the Hinckley Institute of Politics, is to get people engaged in the political process. We are doing all that we can to mitigate the inconvenience on one side with the benefit to the state and to the university and to our students on the other.

Chris Nelson

Excellent. Thank you, Jason. As always, we had a lot of great questions that came in. I'm going to just summarize and go through these. I want to take it back to the circuit breaker for just a moment and direct this one to Dr. Lacey and Dr. Reed who are on the call. A lot of questions around travel, so maybe Dr. Lacey, the advice you would give to faculty and students, probably a reminder that this is not a fall break, this is a shift to online when we're encouraging folks not to travel.

Dr. Steven Lacey

Yeah, that's correct. The classes are still resuming, they're ongoing, they're just moved online. What my hope is, as a public health professional trying to look out for the university, is that students take up their daily routine and they log into their classrooms just like they always would and stick around the city and go about their daily lives employing all of the tactics that we have been doing over the past six months, which is being at home when that makes sense and physically distancing from folks and wearing a mask when we go out outside of our homes and taking our classes from online just as planned, and then we'll resume after that two weeks.

Chris Nelson

Excellent. Yeah, Dr. Reed, what would you add to that?

SVP Dan Reed

Well, I'd just add: Remember that the majority of our classes are already online, and so for most of our students and faculty, this is no change at all, it's business as usual. What we're trying to do with a two-week circuit breaker is further reduce the frequency of interactions on campus, and that's not just for our students, but it's for our faculty and staff, all the ones who for essential purposes do not need to be on campus. So in most cases, it's business as usual.

I think the other thing to remember is that the majority of our students do not live on campus, they live in the surrounding area, and so they are home, this is where they live, and all we're really saying to them is, ‘Continue your normal educational routine.’ All we're really doing is taking a small fraction of the classes that were focused on experiential education, a few first-year experiences, and taking them online for a couple of weeks, for all the reasons, as Dr. Lacey said. It's about creating an interval where we minimize the frequency of interactions on campus, really driven by a lot of detailed public health modeling.

I will say, as a modeler myself, someone who models computers rather than humans, the models are very similar, and I looked in great detail at how this modeling was done and assessed the assumptions. It's a good model, it's a good practice, and as President Watkins said, many of our peer institutions have found themselves involuntarily being driven to a model that we evaluated alternatives and decided to implement back in the summer.

President Ruth Watkins

I might add one point, Chris, and that is that when we return to some face-to-face classes in the week of October 12, everybody who lives in Housing & Residential Education will have a COVID-19 test again at that time, so in the event that some of our housing residents have been traveling, we have the opportunity for them to be tested upon return, so thanks for that as well.

Chris Nelson

Excellent. I also want to welcome Senior Vice President Michael Good to the call. Thanks for joining us, Dr. Good. Dr. Good, building on Dr. Reed's point, I think when we proposed this back in July, there were some skeptics out there, but it turns out the strategy is working well. Maybe just a brief update from University of Utah Health, what you're seeing, just with a lot of people watching this and outside of the campus community, how is our health system still responding?

SVP Michael Good

Thanks, Chris. The first thing that we were seeing, we are seeing the increased positive test rates at our testing centers. Just in the University of Utah Health system, we were averaging about 70 to 75 positive tests a day. We had that week with the windstorm that we don't quite know how things were so disrupted, but then last week, we're up in around 140-150 positive tests each day in our health system.

We're also in contact with our colleagues throughout the state, as you've read in the newspapers and elsewhere. Right now, with this last week, the seven-day average is about 900 positive tests a day statewide. Three hundred of those are in Salt Lake County, 400 of those are in Utah County, so we've seen the most acute and the steep takeoff principally in Utah County and so we are seeing increased hospitalizations as we talk with our colleagues in other health systems.

Interestingly, here at University of Utah Health, in our University Hospital, we've not seen that step off. We're having about the same number of patients in our hospital today as we've had for the last couple of weeks. Some of that just may be the scenarios that we're worried about and this is why we think the circuit breaker is well-timed. We don't want the individuals with those infections, as Dr. Lacey pointed out, spreading it to their parents, to their grandparents and so on.

Just to repeat what everyone else has said, this next couple of weeks it's important that we really limit close interaction. Outside is better than inside, small group or no group is better than large group, and always with a mask on. I'll put out for the community today an interesting study that appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine over the weekend that wearing a mask, if we do encounter someone with the infection, we actually get a lower dose of the virus, and that lower dose, the authors believe, results in lower symptoms or even these asymptomatic cases that we hear about. And so, there's emerging evidence or merging thought that the mask not only slows the spread from the persons infected, but it may actually really change the course for the uninfected person who comes near somebody with coronavirus and really knocks down the dose of virus that they get. So keep wearing masks, and as the president said, follow the guidelines and create space during this two weeks. It will allow us to do a lot of continued activities if we break this cycle.

Chris Nelson

A lot of questions about access, but before we get to those, I want to go back to Jason Perry. Jason, based on what Dr. Good just said, obviously, the underlying elephant in the room is you're still hosting a big event on campus. Do you want to talk about some of the health and safety protocols that the Commission on Presidential Debates and the university will be doing to make sure that the VP debates, folks within the perimeter, will be safe?

VP Jason Perry

Yeah, happy to talk about that because a considerable amount of effort has gone into those exact things. An important thing to note is that even though our visual to the rest of the world is bigger than ever, the number of people coming to campus is at the lowest that we've ever had for a debate. For example, normally you have 900-plus members of the press that come to a particular location. Now, it's between 200 and 250, which is a lot less, but we've also made adaptions in the places that they're going to be. For example, I was in the media tent just this morning. Every one of those members of the media have been placed six feet apart from each other at least, with masks enforced. Also, in terms of testing, no one will be allowed in the perimeter where any of these events are that has not tested negative within 72 hours of the event. And so that means everyone that's there, that's starting to build even now, will start being tested to make sure that we have an event that is healthy and safe.

Of note, through the leadership of Dr. Mike Good, who is here in this town hall, and the Cleveland Clinic, through some of their protocols, we have a very, very strict set of circumstances that we'll put everyone through that is part of this event to make sure this is safe and largely scaled down in terms of the number of participants.

Chris Nelson

Thanks, Jason. I want to bring Chief Safety Officer Marlon Lynch into the conversation. Marlon, a lot of conversations about a debate as a chance for people to come to the university to express their thoughts, to gather, to have debate parties. This year, because of our final guidelines and where we're at with the coronavirus, we're doing just the opposite, we're actually discouraging folks from being on campus. So maybe just talk briefly about the safety impact and how your team is advising folks who might think they want to come to campus to participate in activities.

Chief Security Officer Marlon Lynch

Of course, Chris. Thank you for the opportunity to share what some of the plans are that are associated with this. As everyone could imagine, safety and security for a national, actually, international event, like this is going to be a priority as well, and so with that, we can anticipate that an event like this does attract a lot of people to want to attend. As you heard from Jason Perry, the actual number of people that are going to be participating in the event itself has been drastically reduced and so that in itself changes some of the safety and security aspects of it. However, our community should plan to see an increased level of law enforcement and security on campus throughout that timeframe. With that, we are working very closely with our partners at Salt Lake City Police Department, Utah Highway Patrol, as well as the United States Secret Service in our planning and how we actually operate during those particular events.

There will be communications that will be shared with the community between now and the debate itself that will give information in regard to what to expect, what the impact regarding access to different roadways and to campus itself, so that information is pending and it will be received. We're also sharing information with our neighboring communities immediately around the university in regard to what to expect and how we may be able to assist them during that timeframe with that. We do expect that there will be those that want to share their freedom of speech and to exercise certain rights as well and that's fine, that's what this event is about with that. We've started to engage some of those groups that have announced that they will be present, and we are in a communication with them, sharing with them what the plans, the operational plans are and the areas that would be available to them as well.

We will have a set of perimeters that will be set specifically. Largely impacted would be the Presidents Circle area, with access to our community itself, specifically to researchers who may have a need to access their research during that timeframe. They are currently being vetted and credentialed. That will give them that type of access. Just throughout that two-week timeframe buildings will be closed, but for those who have regular access that are outside of the impacted perimeter they would still have access to those areas as well.

I guess the anticipation is it is an international event. There will be a heightened level of safety and security. The expectation would be that if you may not have access to that, you will not be given access unless you have taken and followed the appropriate course to obtain it during that particular timeframe, and as I stated, there will be lots of communication between now and then shared with our community on how to gain it or to be informed in regards to what areas will be impacted.

Chris Nelson

Thanks, Marlon. All right, we're going to move to the speed round now, so I'm going to give Dr. Reed the chance to talk to faculty, Dr. Pataki the chance to talk to our research community, and Dr. McDonald the chance to talk to students. And the question is: In those audiences, what do they need to know? What are the basics? Dr. Reed, do you want to start by talking to faculty and instructors?

SVP Dan Reed

Sure. Well, during the two-week circuit breaker, business as usual, and continue to support students and respond to them. We have had a couple of queries about access to classrooms. If faculty want to be able to teach electronically, that's entirely possible, subject to the constraints that Marlon just mentioned. Work with your department chair and dean. We can make that happen.

Chris Nelson

Excellent. Dr. Pataki, for the research community?

AVP Diane Pataki

Okay, so researchers, you can continue to do your research during the circuit breaker. We ask that if you can work remotely, please do work remotely. For example, office work should be done at home and everyone should follow the advice that we just heard from Dr. Lacey and Dr. Good. We'd like researchers to restrict their time on campus to the minimum amount of time that's needed to work in their labs or other research facilities. Keep groups as small as possible, and as always, follow our masking and physical-distancing guidelines. So far, the research community has done an outstanding job of complying with safety guidelines, so thank you to all the researchers, and please continue to follow the safety policies.

If your lab is in the security perimeter for the VP debate, you should have already been contacted by your dean or department chair. Almost all the researchers impacted by security are in the College of Science or Mines and Earth Sciences. If you're in these colleges and your building is impacted, you should have already received instructions from your department or your dean on what to do, and if you have any remaining questions about research, just contact us at vproffice@utah.edu.

Chris Nelson

Excellent. All right, Dr. McDonald, if you'll close us out here with, maybe first off, what do students living on campus need to know and then students just in general?

VP Lori McDonald

Wonderful. Well, our services are widely available, just going virtual, just like the classes. Our Eccles Student Life Center will be closed, but there will be online workouts. The McCarthey Track & Field, which is an outdoor facility, will have some access, but things like advising, counseling, library support, all of these things are still available to students, just in a virtual format. The Union Building does have a computer lab that will remain open with the exception of October 5, 6 and 7, but students who need access that way can do that. We will have food service available for Kahlert Village, Peterson Heritage Center and the Lassonde Building for our students living on campus.

We know that we can do this. Just as everyone has mentioned, following the public guidelines, the health safety guidelines, while we're in this is incredibly important, and we are excited to celebrate the debate, the middle of the semester and just keep going. Thank you.

Chris Nelson

Excellent. President Watkins, do you want to close us out with a few remarks?

President Ruth Watkins

Yes, I would just say the circuit breaker is a real action around safety. You can see it by looking at what other institutions are doing when they get into a challenging situation. I am so grateful to our public health folks who could see that way back in July we would be well-served by a 14-day break.

It is also true that while the vice presidential debate is an enormous opportunity to showcase the U, it is also a challenge and an inconvenience. Thank you all for what you're doing to support this incredible opportunity for the University of Utah and to accommodate accordingly, so best wishes for 14 days of remote learning and work to the extent possible. Stay well and stay safe and thank you for everything you are doing to support the University of Utah through this period. I am grateful personally and I know all my colleagues also share that gratitude to all of you for all that you're doing. Stay well.

Chris Nelson

Thank you.