A virtual town hall session for faculty and staff of the Faculty of Health Sciences (FHS) on the impact of the pandemic, held Aug. 18, saw many questions on McMaster University’s mandatory COVID vaccination policy and on the plans for return to campus.

The session, hosted by FHS Dean and Vice-President Paul O’Byrne, is available for viewing at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1yvd15my5mQ.

The most frequent questions were regarding the university’s decision to make COVID vaccinations mandatory for anyone coming on to campus beginning Sept. 7.

“This decision was made with the very strong, indeed unanimous, support of the senior administration of the Faculty of Health Sciences,” said O’Byrne.

“We as a Faculty are renowned world-wide for being evidence-based and forward thinking. We recognize that the major priority of this university and the Faculty is the health and safety of the members of our community. We know that vaccines work. We know this is the best way to get on top of this pandemic and keep people safe and working on our campus.”

He said in making the decision, the university listened to the advice of public health, the Faculty’s own infectious disease experts, and noted rising infection rates, the Delta variant of the virus and the approaching school term.

Rob Whyte, vice-chair, education for the Faculty, said the new policy will require everyone including visitors to a McMaster site including those, for example, in Niagara, Burlington and Niagara, to upload proof of full vaccination or approval for exemption from the university for a validated human rights ground.

He pointed out that those who work or have placements in hospitals or health facilities are required to follow both McMaster’s policy and any requirements of the organizations they visit.

Details of the university’s policy are found at: covid19.mcmaster.ca.  

Whyte added that the university is developing an app to upload proof of vaccination or testing that ensures privacy and meets all confidentiality requirements for health information. There continues to be a requirement for active daily screening, and an IT solution is being developed to improve the process. There will also be a process for verification of vaccination or accommodation status.

Asked what will happen if a person chooses not to be vaccinated and does not submit for an exception, Leslie Cooke-Bithrey, director of human resources, said a process is being developed.

“This process will include further discussion with the individual on next steps, which will be dependent on the individual’s role and the operational requirements.

“The vaccination requirement has been adopted as part of the University’s efforts to keep our community safe and based on the evidence which is demonstrating that vaccination is one of the most significant measures that can be taken to protect students, staff, faculty and community members,” she said. 

“The University’s planning and protocols will be keeping in line with McMaster’s commitment to education, support, and overall community health and safety.”

Cooke-Bithrey answered questions about the return to campus which is expected to take place slowly over the fall, and about consideration for continued work from home, particularly if there are young children or vulnerable family members.

“The past 18 months have provided many learnings and opportunities as departments have adjusted to the pandemic,” she said in response.  

“When planning work arrangements for their areas, departments are asked to consider these learnings and, of course, engage with their teams as much as possible to understand how individual requirements can be considered whilst meeting the operational requirements of each area.

“The university’s human resources department has a ‘Leadership-Decision-Guide’ on its website to help with this thinking.”

Cooke-Bithrey added: “We appreciate that vaccination in children is pending and public health measures in childcare and school settings continue to be developed. We know many employees who are parents have had discussions with their supervisors on their individual needs and we encourage anyone with these concerns to have those discussions.

Vice-Dean, Research Jonathan Bramson thanked the research community for their patience, and commended everyone for the fact that there had not been one COVID transmission on campus over the 18 months.

He said following an Aug. 13 announcement by Hamilton Health Sciences, all McMaster employees working in research and eligible to work at Hamilton Health Sciences sites may return as of Aug. 23. There is a registration process to follow, and people may contact the research office at their hospital to find out if they are eligible. He emphasized that everyone who can work offsite should continue to do so. St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton will be issuing their directives in the near future.  Anyone with questions regarding their eligibility to work on site should contact the Research Office of their respective institution.

“We hope to get people back gradually for non-essential work, but if it is better for you to be on site, I recommend that you speak to your manager to figure that out.”

Clare Mitchell, the Faculty’s chief operating officer, was asked a follow-up question about McMaster employees returning to work in hospitals. She pointed out that they will need to follow both university and hospital directives and those could be different, such as the hospitals requiring a medical rather than a cloth mask be worn.

“Individual units can be opened as needed within the department’s plan for gradual return,” she said.

Laura Harrington, assistant vice-president for the Faculty, answered a series of questions regarding facilities.

She said the maximum number of people is posted in each classroom or meeting room, and everyone must follow public health guidelines, which may change over time, for capacity limits. FHS room bookings can help with Faculty-controlled areas.

Harrington outlined the comprehensive cleaning plan for the fall which includes more frequent disinfecting of high-touch surfaces like door handles and light switches; twice-daily or more cleaning of washrooms; daily cleaning of classrooms, lecture halls and public areas, and every 10-day cleaning of non-public offices.

“We are not asking instructors or staff to be responsible for cleaning, with the exception of labs where occupants wipe down benches, equipment before leaving for the day.”

Masking indoors is expected to continue. Medical masks are required in hospitals, but cloth masks are acceptable in the Ewart Angus Centre and Health Sciences Library of the Health Sciences Centre and other McMaster buildings. Medical or cloth masks are available at the Campus Store for departments and individuals to purchase, and disposable masks are also available at the public entrance to hospitals.

Asked about the restart of in-person events, Whyte said the event guidelines are being set by the university.

“We will be expecting visitors to campus to follow the mandatory vaccination protocols, and the logistics for this are still being worked out,” he said.

A list of questions and answers from the town hall, including those not answered during the session, will be shared with the FHS community in the coming days.

“It is really important to know, as you do, that the pandemic is constantly evolving, and direction from the governments and public health is changing, as the situation develops, and that means some of our decisions are not finalized because of the uncertainty we’re coping with,” O’Byrne said.
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