COVID-19 on Campus: Masks and vaccines, the Delta surge, and what to expect come fall

On August 12, Dr. Mark Bajorek, Director of Health Services for Portland State’s Center for Student Health and Counseling (SHAC), responded to a series of questions from Portland State Vanguard about PSU’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.  


Bajorek is a family medicine specialist and graduated from the Ohio State University College of Medicine & Public Health in 1986, where he received his doctorate. With over 20 years of experience practicing medicine, Bajorek has been on the front lines of COVID-19 policy at PSU since the pandemic began. 


According to Portland State’s online COVID-19 Testing Dashboard, between May 2020 and August 2021, there have been an estimated 73 confirmed COVID-19 cases at the PSU campus. 


Dashboard numbers reveal the aggregate quantity of test samples gathered, tests conducted and cases reported, cumulatively, since the start of the pandemic. COVID-19 case counts are based on positive test results collected by SHACor positive results reported to SHAC by individuals or the Multnomah County Health Departmentaccording to the website. 


“During June, SHAC had no cases reported,” Bajorek stated. “[At] the end of July, we had two. For the first half of August, we’ve had a flurry of testing and 10 reported cases.” 


However, there are discrepancies between the numbers Bajorek provided and what is on PSU’s COVID Dashboard website.


PSU is not alone in the recent uptick in COVID-19 cases. The state of Oregon experienced its largest single-day increase in confirmed cases on Thursday, Aug. 12, which beat out the most recent record, from just two days prior on Aug. 10, according to data from the Oregon Health Authority (OHA). 


On Friday, Aug. 13, the state reported a total of 2,935 deaths and 1,785 new confirmed cases, which brings the total to 238,463 COVID-19 cases in the state.


The OHA’s “Weekly Outbreak Report – August 11, 2021” found that there were “53 active COVID-19 outbreaks in senior living communities and congregate living settings, with three or more confirmed cases and one or more COVID-19 related deaths.” 


Oregon has also once again set another record in the number of patients that have been hospitalized due to COVID-19. Aug. 12 was the third consecutive day where Oregon surpassed its own hospitalization records, according to OHA data, and reporting has indicated that ICU beds and hospitals writ large are at capacity in many counties, and near capacity in the rest. 


According to Dr. Rochelle Walensky, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Delta variant, along with unvaccinated people, are directly responsible for the current surge in cases across the countryand, by extension, Oregon.


Without vaccinations, non-pharmaceutical interventions like social distancing, testing and mask wearing are the only other choices for safely subduing the spread, according to CDC recommendations


Testing, therefore, remains a critical aspect to identifying potential cases and assists in suppressing the spread of the virus. However, a few polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests that were conducted by PSU were sent for further analysis, though Bajorek did not state where they were sent.


“Nearly 90% of the [COVID-19] cases in Oregon are the Delta variant, [and] rapid testing doesn’t allow subtyping,” Bajorek stated. “The few PCR tests that we have sent off from SHAC have not been diagnosed as Delta variant.”


The recent uptick in cases may cast doubt on PSU’s plans for in-person fall reopening, which has been dubbed “Open for Fall, Open for All.”


The “Return to Campus Checklist” was created to help departments and faculty prepare for the return to in-person learning. For students, there is the “A New Way Forward for Students” webpage, which is the most up-to-date resource for students who are attending fall classes. 


However, the one aspect to in-person reopening that is the most uncertain is the fate of COVID-19 precautions for the new Summer Bridge Scholars Program, created for incoming Freshmen students. 


An excerpt from the webpage states that the “Summer Bridge Program is a FREE two-course program held four weeks from August 23 to September 17. Students earn up to seven credits for free for completion of this program. Courses will take place Mondays through Thursdays, with on-campus activities on Fridays.” 


Despite being only weeks away, PSU’s policy for the program, with regard to COVID-19 precautions, is not yet certain. 


“Precautions are still being reassessed as the University plans for the Bridge Program,” Bajorek stated. “We are heavily endorsing vaccination and providing [COVID-19] vaccines to students.”


“Several campus stations provide free masks, [and] occupants of university buildings are required to wear masks unless they are in a private office,” Bajorek stated. “Campus wide air filtration has been upgraded to MERV13. SHAC continues to test students and staff for [COVID-19] infections.”


Another aspect of returning to in-person classes which seems to fly in the face of what other states or organizations are doing is the vaccination policy for PSU. 


The webpage for student vaccination information states that it is a “requirement” to get a vaccination in order to return to in-person learning. However, the policy is not actually mandatory, as there is no way to verify if a student or faculty member is telling the truth. 


“Oregon schools have access to the state immunization database and can verify [COVID-19] vaccinations, [and] PSU is currently relying on the honor system,” Bajorek stated. As the policy stands, the only requirement is to answer a poll-style questionnaire asking about vaccination status, with zero verification after the fact. 


Whether PSU will be checking the state immunization database is unclear at this time. Bajorek made no mention of such a policy requirement for the health department or PSU, nor is there data regarding students or faculty who may have received a vaccination out-of-state or country, according to the website. 


According to a recent CNN report, an estimated 99.999% of Americans that are fully vaccinated have not experienced a breakthrough case of COVID-19, while an AP News report in late July found that nearly all COVID-19 cases and deaths occur among those who are unvaccinated.


Moreover, according to experts, the likelihood that a variant capable of immunity from the current vaccines is “almost certain,” while the Delta variant has been shown to be more transmissible than Ebola and the 1918 pandemic flu strain. 


Other than vaccinations, mask mandates are also an aspect to PSU’s COVID-19 response. “As of 8/12/21 masks [are required] in all university buildings, unless in a private office,” Bajorek stated. The state of Oregon has also issued an indoor mask mandate, as of Aug. 13. 


Considering the fluidity of the COVID-19 pandemic and the response to it, there may be changes to policies in the weeks or months ahead. 


“Many teams of concerned faculty and staff have been evaluating models for teaching in a worsening [COVID-19] environment,” Bajorek stated. “My goal is to keep up with [COVID-19] testing and let patients know their results as quickly as possible. Additionally, I aim to hear out those vaccine hesitant patients to see if there is room for reconsideration.”


Resources, no matter how inconsistent or changing, will always be available to students on campus or off. 


“Rapid testing is free at SHAC [and] vaccination with the Moderna vaccine is free as well,” Bajorek stated. “Our nursing team will field questions from students’ [and] residents’ life and faculty.”


If a student or faculty member is experiencing symptoms resembling COVID-19, or has any questions, comments or concerns, “Please call SHAC [at] 503-725-2800,” Bajorek stated. “We will want to know the specifics of your case. We know everyone has unique risk factors and concerns. We’re here to listen and happy to help.”

Conor Carroll/PSU Vanguard