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UVA's President Explains Ongoing Restrictions as COVID Cases Spike

UVA, KK Ottesen

The President of UVA hosted a virtual town hall Friday, apologizing repeatedly to students for new restrictions on their day-to-day lives.  Jim Ryan said limits were needed as the number of active cases among students, faculty and staff rose to 844. 

Libraries and gyms are closed, in-person events have been banned, and UVA President Jim Ryan told students living off campus to stay home when the number of confirmed COVID cases rose more than 300%.

“Over the weekend and into Monday cases continued to rise.  They were widespread across grounds and off grounds and the positivity rate was increasing, " he recalled. "We made the decision on Tuesday that we had to move and we had to move quickly. It was Mardi Gras.  The next day was a day off from classes, and we thought students would be getting together that night.”  :20

By Friday there were nearly 850 active cases of COVID at UVA and the more contagious U.K. variant had been detected. The university’s chair of medicine, Dr. Mitch Rosner, counseled students to keep their distance and keep on masking.

“I know that this variant really ups the ante.  It will find the cracks in our armor.  It’s more likely to infect those people who aren’t following the guidelines.  It’s a good wake up call for all of us.”  

Ryan said the university was at a place it would be easy to tip into a spiral that could overwhelm UVA’s capacity to deal with the virus, but for now the medical center has plenty of room for new patients, and only half of all quarantine spaces were filled.

Some critics have blamed fraternities and sororities for hosting annual rush events and condemned the administration for failing to cancel them, but Ryan defended the decision.

"It may seem obvious at this point that there would be violations and we might seem somewhere between clueless and naive to have thought otherwise.  I get that, but  we were trying sincerely to strike the right balance between freedom and trust on the one hand and complete control on the other," he explained. "If we got that balance wrong, I’m sorry. Please lay the blame at my feet, as I am ultimately responsible."

Dean of Students Allen Groves added that the university would continue to punish anyone who ignored the mandate to mask, maintain a social distance of six feet and restrict social gatherings to no more than six people.

"We have brought cases for COVID violations against a number of individual students and also against student organizations including five of our fraternities."

Ryan said new cases of COVID had hit all over campus – involving undergraduates and grad students who had not followed public health dictates carefully.

"This doesn’t mean that all students who contracted the virus were being intentional scofflaws, flouting the restrictions. Instead, the picture is a lot more complicated, with some students undoubtedly ignoring health and safety protocols and others making innocent and understandable mistakes or simply let their guards down as many of us, if we’re honest – myself included – have done over the course of the last year."

Provost Liz Magill said UVA hopes operations will return to normal next fall, but – for now – President Ryan says that’s not possible. He told students it’s a situation he deeply regrets.

" I’m sorry that COVID has disrupted your college experience in a way none of us could have anticipated or wanted.  College life is supposed to be engaging. It’s all about forming new friendships and having new experiences that are in person -- not from a box, on Zoom or from behind a mask.”

And Magill acknowleged the emotional toll that on-going restrictions might take.

"Isolation is just incredibly difficult for the human animal.  We're just a social animal.  We like to be with other people,  so I just wanted to make a personal plea to overcome any fear or shame or stigma that you might have about feeling lonely and depressed and just reach out."

Officials said they would follow the number of new COVID cases and the percentage of positives from weekly testing required of all students.  Depending on the trends, restrictions could be eased on February 26th – or, Ryan said, more stringent measures could be imposed.  

***Editor's Note: The University of Virginia is a financial supporter of Radio IQ.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief