Indiana University has entered into an agreement with the state’s largest hospital system that will allow the university’s nearly 140,000 students, faculty and staff to get tested for COVID-19 starting June 1—a move that could allow the university to begin a “phased reopening.”
IU President Michael McRobbie outlined plans in a note to the university community on Thursday. The note said the university could begin in-person instruction this fall “in some proportion,” but added the reopening would depend on the pandemic.
“As we move forward into the summer and the fall semester, we must be constantly aware that the sheer unpredictability of the pandemic and the response to it from numerous quarters means that we may need, at any moment, to pause our plans or even reverse them,” McRobbie’s note said. “All our planning needs to incorporate these possibilities.”
IU, the largest university in the state, is trying to navigate its way to reopening after suspending most in-person operations, including research and instruction, in March.
Purdue University, the University of Notre Dame, Ball State University and Butler University, among others, have already said they plan to resume in-person instruction this fall, with possible limitations.
The first phase at IU is for researchers, including graduate students, to return to their laboratories in June, “with the goal of restarting all on-campus research that can be resumed under the present circumstances by July 1,” the note said. IU is one of the largest research universities in the Midwest.
“COVID-19 has posed exceptional challenges to research at Indiana University and around the world,” McRobbie’s note said. “The pandemic has slowed or stopped many major research activities on campus, though due to a wide range of protective measures taken internally, and the dedication and skill of IU researchers, IU has been able to continue some essential research on campus and considerable other research remotely.”
Under the reopening recommendations, athletes can begin training by mid-June, and students in clinical clerkships can begin by the end of June.
McRobbie also said that on-campus, in-person instruction can take place this fall with extensive risk mitigation, testing and tracking procedures. The note did not include details on which programs or coursework would begin.
He asked all campuses to report to him by Tuesday how they will implement the recommendations in a report from the university’s “restart committee,” which outlines medical and public health measures “that would permit us to enter into a period of phased reopening of our research and teaching operations.”
He added: “Much of this work is already well advanced through dozens of campus committees that have engaged hundreds of faculty and staff members over recent months. In the coming weeks, the campuses will all be regularly communicating further details of their plans, which will all adhere closely to the committee’s report.”
The report contains numerous safety recommendations that are also being widely implemented by other organizations around the state. They include wearing face masks, maintaining at least six feet between people and work stations, installing plexiglass or other barriers in work spaces where people must face each other, and barriers in high-visited areas such as reception desks and check-in points.
Neither McRobbie’s note nor the committee report specifically said whether large events, such as football games and concerts, would be permitted.
“Large events significantly increase the risk of transmission of COVID-19,” the committee report said. “Decisions about whether to permit large gatherings need to be evaluated with respect to the importance to the university’s mission, the extent to which physical distancing is possible, the risk to vulnerable individuals, and federal, state and local guidelines.”
The report also addressed campus housing, recommending that double dorm room occupancy would be feasible if students are allowed to choose their roommates. Students in “vulnerable populations” could request a single room. All students should be vaccinated for influenza and meningococcal B, the report said. Greek organizations and other off-campus organizations should implement safety protocols for housing, dining, social gatherings, meetings and events.
A large step, McRobbie said, is an agreement that IU has struck with Indiana University Health, a major hospital system that will screen and test any member of the university community who is symptomatic for COVID-19.
Starting June 1, any student, faculty or staff who believes they have symptoms use IU Health to review “and whenever medically appropriate,” get tested for the virus.
The service uses a web-based IU Health COVID-19 symptom checker, a virtual assistant that screens and reviews symptoms using artificial intelligence to determine next steps. If the virtual assistant determines that further screening is required, individuals will be referred to the IU Health Virtual Screening Clinic, which is also accessible through the web around the clock. There they will have a consultation with a medical professional who will review their symptoms.
“Should it be determined that the person needs a COVID-19 virus test, they will be referred for the collection of samples for testing to one of 15 different IU or IU Health locations across the state of Indiana,” McRobbie’s note said.
The locations are in Bloomington, Indianapolis, Columbus, Evansville, Fort Wayne, Gary, Kokomo, Lafayette, Muncie, New Albany, Richmond, South Bend and Terre Haute. All will be operational in early June, the note said.
The testing specimens will be analyzed by the IU Health Pathology Laboratories in Indianapolis, which can carry out more than 6,000 COVID-19 tests per day, the largest such testing capacity in the state.
“Should a person receive a positive COVID-19 test, they will be directed to self-isolate for an appropriate period,” McRobbie’s note said. “Contact tracing will be required using the procedures established by the Indiana State Department of Health. During the contact-tracing process, persons potentially exposed will be provided additional resources and information.”
McRobbie urged all students, faculty and staff to continue practicing physical distancing and to stay home for now “unless it is essential to be out.”
“Do not put others at risk,” he wrote. “And take care of your own health and the health of those around you—both mental and physical. We will almost certainly face more challenges and trials in the weeks and months ahead. But I am confident we will meet them—with the same toughness, fierce resolve, humanity and empathy that carried us through a difficult spring semester.”