All students will be required to participate in monthly COVID-19 testing and wear masks in classrooms and other indoor environments where social distancing cannot be practiced during the fall 2021 semester, according to interim university President Harris Pastides.
Masks will not be required in outdoor campus settings, including in Williams-Brice Stadium.
In a virtual town hall on Wednesday, Dr. Jason Stacy, interim vice president of Health and Well-Being and chief health officer, spoke about the importance of wearing face coverings considering the presence of the delta variant on campus. According to Stacy, the delta variant is more easily transmitted and appears to cause more severe symptoms in younger patients than COVID-19 did last year. The delta variant also causes more severe symptoms in unvaccinated people.
"We all understand that the impact on the [face mask] wearer may not be very large, but the impact relative to preventing the transmission of the virus from person to person is significant," Pastides said.
However, Pastides said while face coverings are an effective mitigation strategy, they are "not as valuable as vaccination."
"It's been estimated that the body count relative to COVID in the United States alone would be doubled today, what it is, were it not for the mRNA vaccines. And so we continue to vigorously encourage, but not require, vaccination," Pastides said.
Pastides said the university will not require students to get the COVID-19 vaccine, as it is against the law, but it is strongly encouraging students to do so.
To further encourage students to get vaccinated, the university has implemented the Garnet and Vaxxed Program. Through the program, members of the Columbia campus community who upload their vaccination card to their MyHealthSpace will be eligible to win weekly prizes, including a full semester of tuition, football tickets and MacBooks.
Free vaccines will be available to students 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mondays through Fridays at the Center for Health and Well-Being by walk-in or appointment.
As of today, 57% of USC's student body is fully vaccinated, according to Stacy. The university will be putting out its COVID-19 dashboard again this semester with updated vaccination data.
Both vaccinated and unvaccinated students will be required to participate in monthly COVID-19 testing.
According to Stacy, vaccinated students will have to get tested along with unvaccinated students for two reasons. First, vaccinated people can still spread and contract the more contagious delta variant, though the cases of vaccinated people contracting COVID-19 are rare and tend to present milder symptoms. Second, the state prevents the university from testing only certain groups.
Other COVID-19 mitigation strategies are being adopted from last year, including hand sanitizing stations, disposable masks available in classrooms and plexiglass, according to interim Provost Stephen Cutler. Cutler said currently, the university is also looking to invest in portable air filtration devices, specifically high efficiency particulate air filtration.
If a student does test positive for COVID-19 during the semester and can provide proper documentation, makeup work will be provided by their professors. However, this makeup work won't necessarily include recorded lectures, according to Sandra Kelly, vice provost and dean of Undergraduate Studies.
Pastides said he is "guardedly optimistic" the delta variant will abide in a month or so and that he will be able to rescind the mask mandate at some point later in the semester.
The university is currently planning on an normal, in-person commencement in December, Pastides said.
While the university is trying to return to normalcy, the health and safety of the campus community is being prioritized above all else, according to Pastides.
"I am certain that safety is not the enemy of fun. Safety is not the enemy of learning. It's the friend of fun, it's the friend of learning," Pastides said.