Shahab wants people to mask up, but it’s still optional in the government’s eyes
For the first time in nearly 30 months, students, staff, faculty, and administration at the University of Regina will be returning to campus for the fall 2022 semester. As of June 1, 2022, masks are encouraged but optional across campus, and there is no requirement for vaccination or proof of a negative test to attend courses or access any of the other services provided. The university has released a COVID-19 illness flowchart outlining the procedure to follow should any students, staff, or faculty experience symptoms that could be caused by the virus.
The flowchart directs anyone who experiences any of the 18 symptoms listed (nausea, headaches, fatigue, and dizziness, just to name a few) to stay away from or leave campus, and to test themselves for COVID-19 using an at-home rapid antigen test before calling 811 for advice to manage their unique situation. These tests are readily available for free at the Campus Security office in the Research and Innovation Centre. On a call with Campus Security on Aug. 27, the Carillon learned that while the office has four cases of tests at the moment with 250 tests in each case, engagement with this option has been minimal. When asked over the phone to estimate the number of test kits handed out, security responded that some days 10-12 go out, but the number varies greatly, and other days there are zero handouts.
At the advice of individuals such as Saskatchewan’s chief medical health officer Dr. Saqib Shahab and Health Minister Paul Merriman earlier this year, the provincial government has stripped back vaccination and mask mandates, claiming that individuals have the tools they need to assess their personal situation and can conduct themselves accordingly. These tools include widespread information about symptoms, widely available at-home rapid antigen tests, and expanding the availability of booster shots to anyone over 18 in the province. While the expansion was long awaited, there has not been as much an uptick as may have been anticipated. 44.6 per cent of the province was recorded to have their first booster (third dose of the vaccination) in the report from June 26-July 16, and in the report from July 17-August 13 the number had hardly moved: just 44.8 per cent of the province has received one booster.
In an article on August 19 for CTV News, Allison Bramford interviewed Shahab on the state of the province since the majority of mandates were removed, and what can be expected moving into fall. The chief medical health officer said that “If you are in a crowded place with lots of people you don’t know, it’s a good idea to wear a mask and that’s going to be more important in the fall.” Shahab also expressed his concern that the uptake for those age 18 and over’s first booster shot was at such a low rate. Anticipating yet another wave of COVID sweeping the province, he added that “Right now, two doses is not enough to be considered fully vaccinated.”
Jeff Keshen, university President and Vice-Chancellor, said that both students and faculty in the winter semester were found by the administration to be 98-99 per cent vaccinated, but this was before the first booster shots were available for most provincial residents. Now in Saskatchewan, roughly 30 per cent of people ages 12-49 (within which falls most university attendees) have their first booster shot, meaning that according to Shahab’s statement, only about 30 per cent of those ages 12-49 have been adequately vaccinated against the virus in our province. Those attentive to recent reports may have also seen that while there were 628 new confirmed cases of COVID from June 26-July 16, there were 1,524 from July 17-August 13, alongside a jump from 265 hospitalizations provincially (88/week) to 488 (122/week) in the most recent data available. What may be of greatest concern is the increase in reported outbreaks, which increased fifteenfold to 46 total through July 17-August 13.
Regardless, the university has decided we come back on August 31 in full swing, and there are mixed feelings at every level. A psychology student who is taking a full time courseload on campus this fall said in an interview that “I recognize that everyone’s doing the best they can. Teachers, administrators, the President, like there’s so much to balance. I don’t want to have too critical of a lens. Even the fact that the university was able to kind of survive over the pandemic and actually do things I think is good, because everyone was put under an immense amount of stress and uncertainty.”
“I do appreciate the fact that they’ve tried to open things safely and have clubs resume,” they continued. “That has been very essential to my mental health to have in person clubs, especially physical activity related clubs, continue. I don’t want them to cancel that. I would much rather if things go bad that we go back online [academically] but we keep the clubs running so that it’s just small groups that are congregating.”
This student was asked if they had any questions they would like Keshen to respond to regarding the return of courses and general operations to the campus. They responded with: “If the situation becomes dire enough, will they [the administration] do the right thing and kind of pull everyone back online? If it gets to be chaotic, not to just kind of let the bloodbath happen.”
Keshen was interviewed and responded to this question by saying “I absolutely understand where you’re coming from and I appreciate the question very much because I appreciate the fact that the student wants to, like many students, come back to campus, and I understand that this student is concerned because we don’t know what the future is going to be in this regard. […] If things do turn dire again then of course we would go back online. There’s no question about it.” Keshen did not have a concrete response to when a given situation on campus may be deemed dire enough, instead leaning on the university’s plan to continue conversation with the Saskatchewan Health Authority, claiming they will adjust should the situation prove it necessary.
He continued, saying that “Tragically, lives have been lost. There’s a real impact on so many people, so it wasn’t theoretical. It was real, it was traumatic, coming out of that is going to carry an awful lot of concern, and I hope that this student will be reassured that we will, if necessary, not be headstrong, but we will shift as it’s required to ensure the safety of people. We’ve done it before. A person who sticks headstrong to anything without regard for what’s happening in the wider world is silly.” In my walk from the interview on August 29 at Keshen’s office in the Administrative Humanities building to the Carillon’s office in the Riddell Centre, I came across 165 people total. 12 of these people were masked, meaning that to get this interview I had to come in contact with 153 unmasked individuals. It remains to be seen whether our university students, staff, faculty, administration, and the province as a whole will be “silly.”