Vanderbilt reinstates universal indoor mask mandate

In light of the delta variant and regional vaccination rates, masks will be required indoors for all, regardless of vaccination status, unless individuals can remain socially distanced or are in their dorm.

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Emery Little

A statue of Martha Rivers Ingram wears a mask to encourage students to prevent the spread of COVID-19. (Emery Little/Hustler Multimedia)

Charlotte Mauger, Managing Editor

This story has been updated to include information about classroom layouts, residence hall policies and VUMC protocols. 

Vanderbilt released “temporarily adjusted” COVID-19 protocols for the upcoming semester, including an indoor mask mandate and new quarantine and testing guidelines. The announcement cited the delta variant, the rise in infections in Nashville and vaccinated individuals’ ability to transmit the virus as reasoning for the changes. 

“Due to insufficient vaccination rates in our region, there has been a significant increase in infections and hospitalizations, which are almost entirely limited to unvaccinated individuals,” the announcement stated. 

The announcement, sent via email to students from Chancellor Daniel Diermeier on Aug. 12, revealed that over 94 percent of the Vanderbilt community is fully vaccinated. It further acknowledged that breakthrough infections are “rare” and vaccinated individuals are “robustly protected” against serious illness if they were to contact COVID-19.

The new guidance marks a shift from a May 25 announcement stating that fully vaccinated individuals did not have to wear a mask indoors or outdoors and did not need to socially distance themselves from other fully vaccinated individuals. 

Masks will now be required for all visitors and for those assisting during move-in on Aug. 21-22. They will also be required indoors for everyone on campus “for the start of the fall 2021 semester” with few exceptions. This mandate applies to all individuals, regardless of vaccination status.

“Masks are not required for vaccinated individuals in private offices, or in shared workspaces, classrooms or labs where individuals can stay at least six feet apart,” the announcement stated.

Students have taken to class GroupMes and social media to express their thoughts on the new policies. 

“I’m not mad in ‘anti mask, anti vaccine, republican’ way but I’m mad in an ‘I’ve done my part, always wore my mask, been vaccinated, this should be over by now’ way,” an incoming first-year said in a Class of 2025 GroupMe. 

Vanderbilt’s updated policy comes in the wake of a July 27 CDC announcement which recommends that all vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals wear masks indoors in public areas of “substantial or high transmission.” Davidson county is currently labeled an area of “high” transmission. The decision also follows an Aug. 2 VUMC announcement requiring masks be worn in all indoor areas and VUMC shuttles.

“Remember that although the delta variant of COVID-19 may be spread by vaccinated persons, the vaccines remain highly effective at preventing serious illness, hospitalizations and deaths due to COVID-19 with 99% of deaths due to COVID-19 occurring in unvaccinated individuals,” the VUMC announcement read. “Getting the COVID-19 vaccine remains your best method of protection against this serious infection.”

While vaccinated individuals are not exempt from the indoor mask mandate, they do not have to quarantine if named a close contact of a COVID-19-positive individual. However, all close contacts are encouraged to get tested regardless of vaccination status. Students experiencing symptoms may be put into quarantine while they wait for their test results. 

“Vaccinated, asymptomatic individuals who are close contacts of someone who tests positive should get tested at the Vanderbilt Testing Center or another community testing location three to five days after exposure,” the announcement stated. 

Classroom layouts will not be physically distanced. Depending on the number of students and classroom size physical distancing might be possible; however, if it is not possible to maintain six feet of distance between students, masks must be worn. 

Students with accommodations related to their vaccination status are required to wear masks, and physical distance when possible, in the classroom; however, this would only represent a very small number of students,” a university spokesperson said in an email to The Hustler

The spokesperson further clarified that students are able to visit each other’s dorm rooms where mask wearing will be dependent on if physical distancing is possible.

“Vanderbilt students are permitted to enter other Vanderbilt students’ residence hall rooms and suites,” the email stated. “If physical distancing of at least six feet apart is not possible, vaccinated individuals are required to wear masks”

The announcement emphasized that vaccinations are the most effective way to protect oneself from COVID-19 and asked students to encourage those around them to get vaccinated. 

“We encourage everyone to remain calm, and careful, as we move forward,” the announcement stated. “We will use our collective intellect, creativity and expertise to tackle this challenge while still experiencing a one-of-a-kind collegiate experience.”

VUMC released a COVID-19 status statement on Aug. 13 announcing their Adult Hospital and Emergency Departments are both at full capacity. The announcement emphasized COVID-19 patients currently being treated are of all ages and some in their early to mid-20s are “very sick.” VUMC will be limiting elective procedures and transfer requests from other hospitals. 

“The Middle Tennessee Transfer Coordinating Center is up and running to try to balance the load around the city,” the statement reads. “Those transfers are being placed in hospitals despite capacity and staffing challenges. This is a significant stressor to our health care staff and providers.”

The university will continue to monitor the situation and provide updated guidance.

The university is continuously monitoring public health guidance and the infection rate in the Nashville community, and is prepared to adjust the protocols as the situation improves.”

Jazlyn Selvasingh contributed reporting to this piece.

This story will be updated as more information becomes available.