Franciscan University declined on-campus vaccine site

News: COVID-19

Franciscan University of Steubenville declined an opportunity to offer a coronavirus vaccine site on campus, two weeks before the university’s president called a surge of virus cases at the university “not sustainable.” 

County health officials cautioned in March and April that cases at the university were on the rise, and offered to “help you decrease positivity rates at the university,” though university officials said they were following appropriate precautions.

But with cases rising and in-person instruction facing the prospect of cancelation, university professors said disagreement over the pandemic is characteristic of a broader rift among practicing Catholics, and that pandemic policies at the Ohio Catholic university are going unenforced.

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On April 14, Franciscan University president Fr. David Pivonka said in a video message that “I think the Franciscan community is aware that the number of positive covid cases, among our students, faculty, staff, friars — honestly all the priests —  has spiked in the last week. We’re not out of the woods yet.”

“Covid presents the same threat to Franciscan University as it has since the fall. There is a limit to the number of positive cases quarantined individuals of students, staff, faculty, and friars that we can handle at any given time.”

“We reached that point last November and as you know, we had to end our in-person semester earlier than we had planned. During the past two weeks, we’ve had the number of cases similar to the end of last semester,” Pivonka added.

“The present trend is not sustainable.”

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On March 30, two weeks before Pivonka’s video message, Jefferson County Public Health Commissioner Andrew Henry exchanged emails with university vice president David Schmiesing about the best ways to help students on the university campus access coronavirus vaccines. 

Noting that some university students might have difficulty traveling to vaccine sites, Henry offered that “if we had enough interest, we could set up at the university one day,” to offer vaccines.

Henry suggested surveying the university community to gauge interest. If a survey “had a response that justified us operating somewhere at the university for a day, we would highly consider [it],” he said, emphasizing the suggestion.

Schmiesing responded that day to the invitation. 

“At this point we would not opt for an on-campus vaccine day,” Schmiesing wrote.

In the email exchange, Schmiesing did ask Henry to suggest ways that university students who wanted a vaccination could more easily register for one with the county; they discussed possibilities to make such registration simpler for students.

At the time Schmiesing declined the invitation for an on-campus vaccine site, university officials might have thought that the virus had been abated on the campus. A university covid-19 dashboard shows that new case rates at the university were mostly consistent during the months of February and March

It was a week after the vaccine clinic proposal that new case rates on the campus tripled, and within two weeks grown by nearly a factor of five. 

The university has not yet responded to questions from The Pillar about why it declined to provide vaccines on campus, or whether, with cases increasing, it would reconsider the decision.

The university reported 63 active cases when Pivonka warned rates were unsustainable; one week later, that number has grown to 89.

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The Pillar spoke to two faculty members with concerns about the university’s approach to the pandemic, and about division on the university’s campus over masking and vaccines. The professors asked not be named, because of tensions on campus over the pandemic.

Both faculty members told The Pillar that while most students wear masks and observe social distancing guidelines, there is a group of both students and faculty members who have been outspoken against both masks and the morality of vaccines. 

And university administrators, one professor said, have proven reticent to enforce masking and social distancing policies.

“We haven’t got much of a protocol of any kind. We've got a policy requiring masking and social distancing in practice. There isn't any serious enforcement mechanism and faculty who attempt to enforce it have been put to a lot of trouble.”

One professor who enforced a mask policy in class was disciplined for doing so, a faculty member told The Pillar. The university has not responded to questions from The Pillar on that assertion.

Division around masking and vaccines at the university comes amid a broader split among practicing Catholics on the morality of vaccines and the efficacy, ethics, and significance of masking policies.

A faculty member told The Pillar he has encountered a variety of objections on campus, all of which are also represented in a broader conversation among Catholics: Those who think that masks do not effectively prevent the spread of the virus, those who have objections to the vaccine’s remote material connection to abortion, and those who think the vaccine will be used as a mechanism of government control, or to usher in a one-world government — a view that has been advanced by Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, former papal representative to the United States.

That division has played out in Steubenville parishes as well as the university, professors told The Pillar, citing discomfort among local parishioners with university students attending Masses at their local parishes but declining to wear masks.

The split has included bishops offering dueling statements on the morality of pandemic vaccines, and a statement from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which affirmed that receiving the coronavirus vaccine is morally acceptable for Catholics, and said Catholics should call for vaccines tested and produced with no material connection to abortion, however remote.

Faculty members said that statement has not been universally received at the university. While the university has hosted a panel discussion on the morality of the vaccine, professors said that some administrators seem reluctant to push back against a growing anti-vaccine movement on the campus, especially one that seems to be endorsed or supported by some professors.  

One faculty member suggested that some students concerned about the morality of vaccines seem to have broader concerns about the Church’s commitment to its teaching on abortion and the dignity of human life, and are uncertain about how to express that.

“Sociologically, I wonder whether there are people who are concerned, rightly or wrongly, that the Church is moving away from having a strong emphasis on the life issues, and are therefore [raising concerns about vaccines] to try to counterbalance that.”

“Maybe they’re addressing that by coming down very hard on these shots. By saying that ‘I refuse to get one,’ and also by saying that ‘you should consider refusing as well.’”

Jefferson County public health officials began to express concern about the pandemic at the university earlier this year, while university officials said they had an effective approach to combat the virus’ spread.

In a March 1 email, the county’s director of nursing, Hannah Piko, wrote to public health commissioner Henry, expressing concern that university protocols did not follow CDC guidelines.

The public health department “had regular communication with [university] COVID representative, Catherine Heck that abruptly stopped in October. We spoke frequently with her about their mitigation strategies, quarantine and isolation policies.”

University officials had told the county “that they were using their own strategies of ending quarantine and isolation, some sort of step-down system, that allowed them to test at certain points of quarantine/isolation to check viral load to allow them to be out of isolation/quarantine prior to the standard 10 days implemented by CDC and [the Ohio Department of Health],” Piko said. 

“Before they implemented this process it was never discussed with the health department,” she added.

The nurse said that university procedures “are still problematic. If they are not following the proper quarantine and isolation guidelines.” Piko raised concerns that what happened on the university’s hilltop campus would spread into the surrounding community.

The university, Piko wrote “is the ONLY common source of cases...It is the only place we are finding a common ground and a cluster of cases.”

On the same day, Henry wrote to university officials. 

“I wanted to touch base to see what we can do to help you decrease positivity rates at the university. FUS has 21 of our 34 positive cases since Friday. It is vital that we work together as the health department must take action to limit community spread. We also have to provide transparent commentary for our media outlets.”

Schmiesing said he was open for a phone call, and he challenged the accuracy of the health department’s reporting on case numbers. “While these numbers are higher than we would like, it does not seem that the university is the source of a majority of the positive cases in the county,” he explained.

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On April 8, Henry wrote again to Schmiesing to note that cases were rising at the university. “In doing a quick check, I see regional universities with similar enrollment have less active cases. For example, 6 active cases at Walsh and 7 at West Liberty,” Henry wrote.

“Please let us know if we can be of help ensuring quarantine guidelines are being followed.”

Schmiesing wrote back, explaining that “We are continuing to quarantine or isolate students as per guidelines. We are able to move quickly—test in the morning, and in the event of a positive case, identify close contacts and move them to quarantine housing by the end of the same day.”

“Our most recent clusters revolve around a couple of the athletic teams, as well as a local restaurant. Our current numbers also include students who tested positive while at home for Easter break, and they are isolating at home (out of town).”

On April 12, two days before Pivonka’s announcement, Jefferson County Medical Director Mark Kissinger wrote to Schmiesing, to ask if contact tracing, isolation, and other measures were in effect, amid “an increasing number of cases of Covid positive students over the last week.”

“I know that for college age students, mortality is minimal. Our concern, of course, is potential spread from campus into town,” Kissinger wrote.

“Yes, our cases have gone up this past week,” Schmiesing responded.

“Our ability to quickly test symptomatic students (and staff and faculty), to isolate them immediately, and to quickly identify, quarantine and then conduct follow-up testing for close contacts greatly reduces the risk of spread from campus into the local community.”

“We are also continuing to consider and discuss other measures,” he added.

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Two days later, Pivonka announced those measures, which seemed to indicate that the university’s containment policies had not been working as effectively as administrators had hoped, and that students had not been compliant with university policies.

“Effective immediately, we are going to suspend open house and visitation hours in the residence halls, and in the Heights. Certain campus events are going to be revisited: they’re going to be adjusted, postponed, and some things are going to be canceled. We are monitoring this situation very closely, and we’ll continue to reevaluate and look at it in a week. If we don’t see any change, we’re going to have to adjust accordingly,” he said in the April 14 video.

Noting that in-person instruction could be suspended, Pivonka added that “we can all make decisions that increase our odds of completing the semester in person. How we recreate, how we hang out, and meeting outside as much as possible: all of these things will have an impact.”

“We still need to wear our face coverings in most of our indoor situations, as required by university policy. This includes classrooms, includes the buildings, includes the chapel, the Fieldhouse Masses, and even in the JC Williams Center when you’re not actually eating.”

There were 91 new cases in the week following Pivonka’s announcement.

The university has not yet said what events will be canceled or suspended, or whether in-person instruction will continue through the semester.