COVID-19 Guidelines Bring Assurances To University ʻOhana

Story and Photos by Lichen Forster


Many college students have worried in recent months about the alterations to their college years thanks to COVID-19. Getting the most out of a multi-thousand dollar experience is tricky when balanced against risking the health of themselves and the community. This may be the reason that the University of Hawaiʻi’s new COVID-19 regulations are being received relatively well by students and faculty.

University officials announced in May 2021 that all individuals (students, faculty, and visitors) coming to any campus in the UH system for the fall semester are required to share records showing either full vaccination status or a negative test result. UH is utilizing the LumiSight app, where students and faculty can upload and share vaccination or test status. The app must give the “all clear” to users before they are allowed on campus, or in any classrooms or facilities, according to emails throughout the summer from the UH system and Dr. Farrah-Marie Gomes, P.hD., vice chancellor of student affairs for UH Hilo.

When the university announced its plans for the fall 2021 semester, all COVID-19 vaccines remained under emergency use authorization (EUA) status, meaning that mandating it outright would create a moral gray zone. Instead, UH and many other universities in the United States offered weekly testing for those with religious or medical exemptions, or those who decided not to receive the vaccine. As of Aug. 23, however, the first day of instruction at UH, the FDA approved the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for those of ages 16 and older. (fda.gov)

According to the Vice Chancellor of Administrative Affairs Kaleihiʻiikapoli “Kalei” P. Rapoza, UH Hilo community members have been on board since the spring.

“Most people are in favor of the vaccination mandate,” Rapoza said. “We took steps beginning in January to make the vaccine available to our employees and certain student groups before the vaccine became more widely available to the general population. Many of our campus community took the opportunity to get vaccinated early on.”

This is not altogether surprising, given that the Hilo district is 70.1% fully vaccinated, comparable to Hawaiʻi County (59%), the state (62.1%), and the nation (51.6%). These statistics came from the County of Hawaiʻi’s website, the state Department of Health, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, respectively, and were retrieved just before press time.

Student Medical Services is not currently offering either vaccination or testing services, though they have aided in bringing clinics to campus. “As we start another semester, we would like their department to remain focused on meeting the needs of students who might require routine services offered by this department,” Gomes said. Students who need assistance getting to vaccination clinics in town should contact Gomes to learn about their options.

The university has also contracted the Clinical Labs of Hawai’i to give unvaccinated students and employees in the UH system free Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) tests. PCR tests show negative results valid for seven days, and are the only specified type of test approved by UH.

“We have been advising people to test on Thursdays, to be sure they have the results in time to upload by Sunday, to be clear for Monday,” Rapoza said.

“It is why we are targeting to have on-campus testing for Thursdays. We cannot predict how long the test results may take with the increasing amount of tests being required for state and county workers due to the increased demand in communities.”

According to Rapoza, “Violations for non-compliance with the vaccination and testing policy could result in disciplinary action under the Student Conduct Code for students, or the University Policy per employees.” Under the Student Conduct Code, three tracks may be taken to resolve the issue: a restorative justice approach, adjudication by a board of peers, or adjudication by administration. For more information, visit the Student Conduct Code page on the UH Hilo website.

So far, university officials have reported no active opposition to the new policy. Aug. 23, the first day of the fall semester, passed without any issues, as did Aug. 17, the first check-in day for the UH Hilo dorms.

“Residence Hall and Apartment MoveIn Day, Week and Weekend went as well as it could have considering check-in looked a lot different than years past,” Sherri Akau, UH Hilo Director of Housing, told Ke Kalahea. Continued regulations about COVID-19 safety accompany the new UH policy. Face coverings should be worn indoors, unless working in isolation, and are strongly recommended in outdoor spaces. In addition, they must always be worn properly: fully covering the nose and mouth, fit snugly on the sides of the face, and secured so that it will not slip. Three feet of physical distancing is required in all indoor spaces at the university, though some special facilities require six feet. Individuals are instructed to stay home after exposure, or if they are feeling sick. For a complete list of UH Hilo’s policies and guides to safety during the pandemic, visit https://hilo.hawaii.edu/covid19/guidelines/personal-safety-practices.php.

The new UH policy comes into effect as both the county and state deal with the devastating impact of the COVID-19 delta variant. On Aug. 12, the state Department of Health announced that gatherings state- wide would be limited to 10 people in- doors and 25 people outdoors. On Aug. 18, Hawaiʻi County mayor Mitch Roth talked to Hawaiʻi Public Radio about the situation and shared what he heard from an ER physician: “Where we’re at now, if we were to have a major crisis — for example, if a hurricane was to injure a bunch of people, or if you had a massive crash on the freeway in Honolulu or something, where there’s a lot of cars and injuries, [it’s] not just the Hilo and Kona and Waimea hospitals — it would take down the entire system.”

On Aug. 23, Governor Ige said in a press conference that another lockdown “is on the table” if infection rates continue to rise exponentially. On Aug. 24, Hawaiʻi News Now reported the state’s highest COVID-19 infection and hospitalization rates of the pandemic to date., with a 33% increase during the month of August.

In the 14 days leading up to press time, both UH Hilo and Hawai’i Community College (HCC) had reported active cases on their campuses. At press time, UH Hilo had nine; 34.6% of the total cases for the campus since April 2, 2020. HCC had two, accounting for 29%. This is in stark contrast to the UH system as a whole, which had 21 new cases in the same amount of time, amassing only 13% of the system’s total number of cases. To stay up to date on UH’s cases, visit <https://www.hawaii.edu/ covid19/cases-of-covid-19/>.

“I get that [taking the vaccine] is a personal choice,” said Holly Williamson, a senior marine biology major. “And you can do whatever is right for you. But I think that we all want the same thing; we're all work- ing towards the same goal — to make it safe for everyone. So, if you don't get vac- cinated, it’s your own personal choice, but I'm glad that UH Hilo is trying to push people to.”

What do UH Hilo Students Think?

Kailey Oki

Kailey Oki
Freshman
Psychology major

“I think it's a good policy [...] everyone's choice is respected, but students on campus and faculty members feel safe coming on campus.”

Emma Labrada
Freshman
Linguistics Major

“I think it's a really good option for keeping everyone safe because college communities are very tightly knit and I think that it's kind of a breeding ground for COVID, so making sure that we have a high vaccination rate is really important to keeping everyone safe.”

Emma Labrada

Holly Williamson

Holly Williamson
Senior
Marine biology major

“... I get that it's a personal choice, and you can do whatever is right for you, but I think that we all want the same thing; we're all working towards the same goal - make it safe for everyone. So, if you don't get vaccinated, it’s your own personal choice, but I'm glad that UH Hilo is trying to push people to.”