Mask requirements return: Local COVID-19 cases impact on-campus pandemic regulations

On Aug. 11, university President Stephanie Herseth Sandlin sent the Augustana community an email detailing the new mask protocol on campus.

After getting a few days at the end of last semester without masks, the mandate was set to return. This was mostly due to the Sioux Falls COVID-19 numbers and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendations.

“With our COVID numbers on Augustana’s campus, we were feeling somewhat comfortable, but the Sioux Falls community was on a rise,” Suzie O’Meara Hernes, the university’s COVID response coordinator said. “The CDC had put out a notice that with the communities that are in a red zone, which Sioux Falls then was, that it is recommended that even those who are vaccinated [should] wear masks.”

Sioux Falls is also anticipating a spike in case numbers in the next two months, according to O’Meara Hernes.

“I think we should be vigilant about wearing masks, and we should encourage those who haven’t been vaccinated to get a vaccine. And we need to be smart about what we do,” employee health educator Amy Meyers said.

As of Sept. 15, Minnehaha county has reported 1,189 active cases of COVID-19; according to the South Dakota Department of Health,  57% of the state is fully vaccinated. Those numbers play a role in determining how the campus will handle its mask policy.

“It really will be monitoring the risk, understanding our vaccination rates, and then understanding the Sioux Falls community,” O’Meara Hernes said.

Currently, 82% of the Augustana community is fully vaccinated with just two active cases on campus. This will help the campus fight back against the potential increase in Sioux Falls case numbers.

“I’m extremely encouraged and very proud of how highly vaccinated our community is,” O’Meara Hernes said. “So, I would anticipate based on that, that we will hold a lower rate and we won’t spike.”

But that still doesn’t mean the mask mandate will go anywhere. O’Meara Hernes said the campus looks at the CDC recommendations and the Sioux Falls and Augustana cases and vaccinations. Even with Augustana’s numbers, the city itself cannot keep up.

“Getting a vaccine is the most important thing to do,” Meyers said. “Continue wearing masks when you’re in a public setting. If you’re in public and you don’t know who around you might not be feeling well, it’s smart to wear a mask.”

To encourage students to get the vaccine and report their status, Augustana set up a gratitude system. Vaccinated students are eligible for a $150 Visa gift card from the campus clinic.

“That was to truly understand where our vaccination numbers were and also to thank those who had been vaccinated and encourage those that hadn’t,” O’Meara Hernes said. “We suspected that some just hadn’t reported, but we also knew that some hadn’t gotten the vaccine yet.”

While the first round of gift cards is over, there will be a second distribution. Students have until Oct. 1 to receive a full vaccination course and accurately report their status on the MyAugie portal.

“The incentive was surely a showing of gratitude for those who had gotten vaccinated and appreciation for those who will take that step to get vaccinated as well,” O’Meara Hernes said.

Unvaccinated students can receive their doses on campus. The pop-up clinics administer the Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer vaccines, with the next clinics on Sept. 7, Sept. 24 and Sept. 28 in the 3-in-1 room of the Morrison Commons.

“The more people that we can get vaccinated, the more protected we will be,” O’Meara Hernes said.