Health and Safety Practices at the University of Toronto (UTM)
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The faculty, students, and staff of UTM and the surrounding community are asking the University of Toronto Mississauga to take steps to ensure our health and safety as we begin the process of reopening the university. The science that is emerging makes it clear that this will include developing a policy that mandates anyone on campus who can wears a face covering while in common areas inside buildings. We recognize that the role of face coverings in reducing the transmission of the novel coronavirus was initially limited and this led to confusion in the messaging from public health agencies over whether masks should be advised for the public. However, research on the effects of face coverings has advanced rapidly since COVID-19 first appeared and the data indicate two key points. First, infections arise primarily through airborne transmission (Zhang et al. 2020, Proceedings of the National Academy of Science) and so the additional measures the university has provided, including additional cleaning of surfaces are helpful but insufficient. Second, because new infections arise predominately from uninfected people coming into contact with airborne droplets and aerosols from infected people, many of whom may be asymptomatic, face coverings that capture these droplets and aerosols can be an effective means of limiting the spread of COVID-19 (Zhang et al. 2020). These face coverings can include cloth and surgical masks and face shields. While there are some members of the university community who cannot reasonably be expected to wear such coverings because of medical (e.g. COPD) or psychological (e.g. PTSD) conditions, most of our community can function effectively while wearing a face covering. Several Ontario regions, including Dufferin and Wellington counties, have instituted mandatory face coverings for people entering businesses, allowing exceptions for people who state they cannot wear them. Policy can be developed to protect both public health and individuals with conditions that limit their ability to wear face coverings. By making face coverings mandatory, while allowing reasonable exemptions, the university can create a safer working environment for faculty, staff, and students and decrease the likelihood that the university contributes to the spread of COVID-19 in the cities and region of which we are a part.
Our mission is to advance research and education and so we feel it is incumbent on us to ask the university to update its policy on face coverings in order to come in line with the best scientific evidence for a safe reopening of the university. Anything less ignores the emerging science on how we can best stop the spread of COVID-19. One only must look at trends in areas of the United States where safety precautions are not observed: reports of 8942 new cases in Florida, 5707 in Texas and 4890 in California on June 26th, 2020 are unfortunate examples of why we must not ignore safety health protocols. These extreme numbers correspond to a lack of strict policy and enforcement.
Finally, wearing masks is common sense. Reducing the risk of COVID-19 infections at the university now means an increased chance of reopening in-person activities at the university later, potentially for the upcoming fall semester. What will our students think when they arrive at a campus to find members of our facilities and staff congregating without wearing masks and near one another? As role models and educators, we wonder whether this lax behaviour will signal a lack of care and provide a rationale for transferring to other schools and other areas of students’ daily lives.
The undersigned write to urge the University of Toronto Mississauga administration to be smart and mandate the use of masks and other precautions. Such measures are already enforced at places like Harvard University and this is what we expect from the University of Toronto and its leaders.
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