Health and Medicine University

A leadership conversation about the fall semester

In these unprecedented times, University of Miami President Julio Frenk and Erin Kobetz, who is leading the tracking and tracing efforts on campus, provide a candid assessment of the University’s reopening progress.
Shalala Student Center and Lake Osceola. Aerial photograph: TJ Lievonen/University of Miami
An aerial view of the Shalala Student Center and Lake Osceola. Photo: TJ Lievonen/University of Miami

As the fall semester’s third week of classes gets underway at the University of Miami, President Julio Frenk and Erin Kobetz, vice provost for research and professor of public health sciences, discussed the importance of adhering to safety protocols, the steps taken to address COVID-19 on campus, and what the remainder of the fall semester may look like.

Students have been back on campus since move-in week on Aug. 10. How would each of you describe how the University is doing in terms of coronavirus cases and trends?

President Julio Frenk: Overall, I am pleased with the progress we’ve made at this early stage of the semester. Since in-person classes began on Aug. 17, we have had 165 students test positive for COVID-19, along with one faculty member and 17 staff members, most from the Medical Campus and UHealth satellite offices. As I have said repeatedly, it would have been unrealistic to assume that there would be no cases of COVID-19 this fall, on our campus or anywhere else in the world. We live in the midst of a global pandemic, and there is no risk-free option, whether students reside on campus or remain at home. Our goal is to balance our need to keep our community safe, with our mission to provide students with the education they desire and deserve. Dr. Kobetz is a public health expert who has been part of our reopening planning team and is monitoring the trends closely, so I will let her describe what she’s seeing. 

Erin Kobetz: When we take a closer look at the numbers, they tell an important story about how our reopening efforts are working. The data I watch most closely are the seven-day rolling average of new cases, where those cases are concentrated, and whether they are linked. We are seeing encouraging trends. Between Aug 15 and Aug. 29, we saw fewer new positives among students, as well as a declining trend in the positivity rate. Again, as President Frenk said, our priority is to keep the community safe, and it’s very early in the semester. But what we’re seeing indicates that our plan is working. We’ll continue to remain vigilant and correct the course as needed, using the data as our guide.

It seems that regardless of how carefully you planned the reopening of the University, the behavior of students plays a major role. There have been stories about students being blamed for the COVID-19 cases on campus, including being disciplined by the University. Is it fair to put that much pressure on students?

Frenk: Let me begin by expressing how proud I am of our students. The vast majority have demonstrated that we can rely on their maturity, thoughtfulness, and resilience. I acknowledge that our students are making sacrifices this semester, and I applaud the way in which they have prioritized the value of education over the social dimensions of the college experience. It’s not easy to adopt new habits, but students are largely doing the right things. They’re looking out for one another, and this is reflected in the encouraging trends Dr. Kobetz mentioned. Have there been some breaches of our safety protocols? Yes. But that’s also something we expected to happen, and we’ve been able to respond quickly, thanks to the cooperation from students, faculty, and staff. I am grateful for everyone’s commitment to ensuring we have the safest possible return to campus.

Kobetz: I’d just add that one of the most important things we all need to keep in mind is that we’re not running a tightly controlled lab experiment. We’re dealing with human beings, who have been under great pressure for months. And we’re all going to have days where we don’t feel like putting on our masks or staying socially distant from close friends—but we must remain vigilant. That’s something we absolutely took into consideration when planning our reopening, and we’re pleased by students’ willingness to accept these new norms, while also encouraging one another to adopt and maintain them. Candidly, if the entire country took coronavirus safety precautions as seriously as the vast majority of our students do, we’d have the pandemic under greater control.

How many COVID-19 cases on campus would it take for you to cancel in-person classes and shift to a remote learning program?

Frenk: You can see from the COVID-19 dashboard that we are tracking a number of different measures. It is not just the number of cases, but other factors such as where infections are concentrated and whether we are able to trace contacts. There is no single data point that tells the entire story, so we are not going to base our decisions on any one number. What we are going to do is remain intensely vigilant, watching the numbers closely, and responding as needed. We’re even doing that with the dashboard itself. Since launching it last Monday, we received several good suggestions for how to make it more user-friendly, and we’ve updated it in response to those recommendations. I’m very appreciative of the advice we’ve received, and I’d encourage the entire community to keep their ideas coming, because beating this pandemic requires the constructive engagement by all members of the University community.

Kobetz: To give you a sense of how closely we’re watching those numbers, let me share some additional context on the cases we’ve seen over the past couple of weeks. As a leadership group, we delve deeper into the numbers each night, disaggregating them in a way that allows us to appreciate the epidemiology of infection across the University. For example, let’s take the positive students. On the dashboard, we report new cases. In our nightly discussions as a COVID rapid response team, we go a step further. We have a heat map that allows us to evaluate the geographic distribution of new infections to identify where the new cases live and whether there is an emerging pattern that must trigger more targeted testing. This is true for residential and non-residential students. We also draw important insight from our contact tracing efforts, our health system capacity, and the trends in disease prevalence across the University as a whole. While we are not able to publicly post all data to protect student and patient confidentiality, we do closely analyze this information. 

Speaking of team efforts, some people were surprised by the decision to not allow students to attend Hurricanes football games. Why did you take that action?

Frenk: It’s important to remember that University of Miami students will not be permitted to attend the first two home games, for now, and we will revisit the decision each month this football season. That means that no students will be present at Hard Rock Stadium until at least October. Depending on the numbers we see in terms of cases and trends, we may extend that period. We want students to enjoy the football season—and our team is working hard to provide gameday options—but we do not want to compromise our ability to deploy the kind of contact tracing necessary to keep the campus community safe. Until it becomes clear that the risks involved in students traveling to in-person games are manageable, we’re going to err on the side of caution.

Kobetz: I would add that just as we want to complete the semester on campus, we want our student-athletes to be able to complete their seasons. They have been true leaders and critical collaborators in helping establish many of our systems over the summer, since they were the first students to return to campus. It was through their experience that we have been able to successfully scale testing, tracing, and tracking. As President Frenk mentioned, our success requires a team effort, and that includes all of our students, faculty, and staff members.  

A number of faculty members have expressed concerns about reopening the campus. What would you say to those faculty members worried about their health and the health of their colleagues?

Kobetz: Providing a safe teaching environment for our faculty was a central part of our plans for reopening. We’ve taken a number of precautions to ensure our faculty can work in the safest possible environment, and that includes providing plexiglass shields, UV filters, MERV filters, electrostatic disinfection systems in labs, and requiring physical distancing within classrooms. 

Frenk: I mentioned how proud I am of our students, and I’m just as proud of our world-class faculty members, who have resumed their important work of delivering exceptional education. They’ve placed their trust in the University to protect their safety, and we are working each day to continue to earn that trust. I stand with all of you. I am currently teaching a hybrid course on global public heath, delivering my classes in person. And, I feel very safe given the protocols we have put in place. The provost and I are meeting with faculty regularly and taking steps to address their needs, such as the childcare options announced last week. I’m pleased by what we’ve all achieved to this point, but it’s still early. We have a little over three months to go in this semester, and it will take an unprecedented level of teamwork, vigilance, and patience to be successful. That said, I’m confident that we have the right plans in place, as well as the willingness to continue adapting and responding to this pandemic. So, thank you for this opportunity to answer your questions. We look forward to continuing to update you—through these and other platforms—as the semester progresses.