UNC-Chapel Hill student leaders demand more campus COVID-19 safety measures

Teddy Vann

UNC-Chapel Hill student leaders demanded the university mandate COVID-19 vaccinations, improve access to COVID testing, and make online instruction widely available.

Students said at a meeting Friday that the administration’s approach to health and safety is irresponsible considering hospitals and their ICUs are filling with COVID-19 patients, and that students and faculty could get sick and infect family members and others on campus.

“Despite evidence suggesting that the COVID-19 Delta variant would fuel infections on campus and lead to more severe illness in those who contract it, the university chose to return students to campus fully in-person and with no social distancing in classes –  no matter how large,” said Teddy Vann, Black Student Movement president.

The university’s COVID-19 dashboard reported Friday that 466 students and 74 employees had tested positive since August. Ninety percent of students, 95% of faculty, and 83% of staff have told the university they are vaccinated. No one is required to show documentation, Policy Watch has reported.

Student who are not vaccinated must be tested for the virus twice a week, but there is only one testing site and it’s closed on weekends. Students standing in long lines have complained about the wait to get tested.

Unvaccinated faculty and staff must be tested for the virus once a week starting Sept. 15.

UNC student Simon Palmore said students deserve more information.

“We have a student body that is not only afraid of what is going on but is totally in the dark,” he said.

“Students are concerned. I’m concerned. All I’m hearing is optimism.”

UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz has said that he would like a vaccination mandate, but that he does not have the power to impose one, Policy Watch has reported.

Student Body President Lamar Richards said Friday that Guskiewicz, Provost Bob Blouin, and other administrators had agreed to attend the meeting, but back out.

UNC Media Relations released an email Guskiewicz sent Richards that said Guskiewicz and Vice Provost Leah Cox had planned to go when he believed the meeting was going to be a Q&A with no more than 25 students, as Richards had described in an email last week.

An email from students Thursday about UNC student leaders slamming the administration “reveals you are more interested in generating publicity than producing meaningful dialogue,” Guskiewicz’ email said.

The UNC Media Relations email said masks are required indoors and the university notifies students in residence halls as soon as it sees a trend of positive cases and encourages them to proactively test.

Students invited the UNC-Chapel Hill community to sign a statement of demands. By Friday evening, nearly 250 faculty, staff, and students representing organizations had signed.

This article was updated Sunday at 7:50 am to correct a misattributed quote.

National report: NC prisons score an ‘F’ on COVID responses

[Note: This story has been updated with comments from the state Department of Public Safety in Italics.]

North Carolina’s prison system lags in reducing the incarcerated population during the COVID-19 pandemic and controlling infections, according to a report released Wednesday by the Prison Policy Initiative, a criminal justice research think tank.

Researchers at the nonprofit graded states based on 30 criteria related to responses to COVID-19 in prisons, including population reduction, disease control and death rate, and vaccination, as well as other policies for mitigating health risks in these congregate-living settings.

North Carolina, with 37 other states, received the lowest failing grade of an ‘F.’  In terms of policy changes to protect the health of the incarcerated, the state scored second to last, only slightly better than Georgia.

John Bull, Communications Officer at the state Department of Public Safety pushed back against the findings of the report in an email statement, saying the Prison Policy Initiative lacks expertise in epidemiology.

He wrote that than 11,000 have been released from prison since January. “It should also be noted North Carolina’s prison population is the lowest it has been in 20 years,” he added.

“This PPI report also neglects to even mention what has been done to transition folks back into the community,” Bull wrote. “NC has taken extensive steps to assist individuals with reentry, which even in normal times is difficult, but add in a pandemic and individuals face countless more barriers.”

“The highest ranking state is New Jersey with a ‘C’ grade. The state has vaccinated 89% of its incarcerated population and reduced its prison population by 42%.”

The report alleged that North Carolina is also one of eight states that did not offer free phone calls in prison during the pandemic.

Bull said that the phone service vendor offered two free five-minute phone calls each week to those who were incarcerated at the onset of the pandemic.

Early release and decarceration efforts

Historical data compiled by the Marshall Project show that North Carolina reduced the incarcerated population by less than 20% between March 2020 and July 2021,: from 34,256 to 28,765. Half of the prison population was Black and Latino as of February 2021.

The COVID Behind Bars Data Project developed by researchers at the UCLA Law School, tracks prison policies during the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to the project, North Carolina changed its policies to speed up releases, especially for minor offenses and compassionate release related to medical concerns. For example, in May 2020, the state Department of Public Safety, which oversees state prisons, reduced sentences for hundreds of vulnerable people, including those who were older and who were pregnant. The state, however, did not suspend incarceration for technical violations of parole and probation conditions.

DPS has granted early reentry to 4,450 people to transition back into their communities through post-release supervision and parole programs, as well as sentence reduction. For instance, more than 1,500 were allowed to serve the remainder of their sentences outside of prisons as part of the Extended Limits of Confinement program, according to the email statement from DPS.

As Policy Watch previously reported, the state also agreed to release 3,500 who were incarcerated in a February settlement with civil rights groups.

Vaccination and disease control

Two areas the North Carolina prison system received a middling rating: Vaccines and infection control.

According to the report, about 60% of the prison population was vaccinated as of July 1.

In North Carolina, the incarcerated people’s death rate of 0.19% is slightly higher than the 0.13% among the general public.

But the cumulative infection rate is 35.2%, almost quadruple the 9.7% share in overall population, according to CDC data. However, a joint investigation by North Carolina Health News and VICE News in February revealed undercounts of the death toll in prisons. The state Department of Public Safety modified its reporting protocol in March, according to news reports.

The most recent DPS data show that there are currently 0.6% of positive cases among prisoners.

In an earlier email, a DPS spokesperson John Bull said that the state prison system seeks to make vaccines available to anyone who wishes to receive one and provides information and transparency.

Bull wrote that the department offered the following incentives to encourage vaccination among those incarcerated: Five days of sentence credits for those eligible, or otherwise $5 credit in the facility canteen, four additional visitation sessions, one free 10-minute phone call, and earlier return to an assigned job, program or educational activity. These incentives expired in June.

However, North Carolina prisons still charge medical copays for conditions other than COVID-19, whereas 12 states including Virginia canceled all copays, according to a survey by the Prison Policy Initiative.

[Note: The above paragraph has been updated to clarify that DPS does not charge copays for treatment for COVID-related symptoms.]

Transparency and reporting

The UCLA Law School’s COVID Behind Bars Data Project shows that North Carolina does not provide detailed reporting of staff infections, tests and vaccinations. There’s only a state total of vaccination status, for example.

Earlier this year, a University of Texas-Austin report gave North Carolina a ‘C-‘ grade for its data reporting, a medium-level grade.

You can visit DPS’s website for more details on infections at individual facilities.

Read the full report and its methodology here.

 

Do state employees need to get COVID-19 vaccinations or regular tests? Depends on where they work.

Starting Sept. 8, thousands of state employees who work for state cabinet agencies – think corrections officers, highway planners, and environmental regulators – must show they’ve been vaccinated for COVID-19, or be tested weekly. Gov. Roy Cooper announced the new requirements as part of an Executive Order signed July 29. The State Employees Association of North Carolina supported the protocols.

The Human Resources policy covers cabinet agency employees who work in offices or meet the public. Agencies have the option of requiring masks indoors for all workers or just for those who are not fully vaccinated.

Cooper announced the vaccination-or-testing requirement as COVID-19 cases caused by the coronavirus Delta variant were climbing. Since the announcement, new COVID cases and hospitalizations have reached levels not seen since January. Data from the New York Times shows that North Carolina hospital ICUs are full or nearly full.

Cooper urged other state agencies to adopt similar measures. Most of them have not. Some agencies do not require anyone to wear masks indoors.

Republicans who run the state Department of Labor, the state Department of Public Instruction, the Department of Insurance, and the state Treasurer’s Office, are not requiring vaccinations or testing.

Two of the three Democratic state agency leaders, Attorney General Josh Stein and State Auditor Beth Wood, are requiring proof of vaccination or regular testing.

The exception among Democrats is Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, who has not implemented a vaccination or testing requirement. Most employees are teleworking, according to an agency spokesman.

On any given day about 75% of agency employees are working remotely, and anonymous surveys have found that 80% to 90% are vaccinated, agency spokesman Tim Crowley said in an email.

“The Secretary applauds Gov. Cooper for focusing on vaccinations and has communicated to the staff on multiple occasions about the important of vaccinations, and also the importance of wearing a mask,” Crowley wrote. “The agency plans to verify the vaccination status of its employees in the coming weeks.”

State Treasurer Dale Folwell said in an interview last week that he will not require proof of vaccination. Folwell, who was hospitalized with COVID-19 last year, said agency employees are “highly encouraged to get vaccinated and wear masks, especially in common areas.”

The Department of Insurance, run by Commissioner Mike Causey, has no plan for vaccination or testing requirements, spokesman Barry Smith said in an email. The department plan encourages but does not require masks or face coverings. Workstations were placed at least 8 feet apart with 5 1/2-foot partitions.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt is not requiring vaccinations, Department of Public Instruction spokeswoman Blair Rhoades said in an email.

“She has instead allowed for employees to voluntarily disclose this information using an attestation form,” Rhoades wrote. “Employees who voluntarily share their vaccination status aren’t required to wear masks inside the building but any employee is, of course, free to wear one if they choose.”

Labor Commissioner Josh Dobson considers vaccination “a personal health matter” and does not intend to require it, department spokeswoman Jennifer Haigwood said in an email.

Dobson believes in the effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccine and encourages vaccination for employees, she wrote. “All NCDOL employees are required to wear a face covering in common areas and in any space with more than one person,” Haigwood said in the email.

State Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler had not decided as of Friday whether to require vaccination or routine testing for employees, but he has been a strong advocate for people getting vaccinated, department spokeswoman Andrea Ashby said in an email.

A spokesman for Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson did not respond to an email Friday or telephone call Monday. During a speech this summer, Robinson said politicians who encourage people to be vaccinated should be voted out of office.

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