Pitt’s new COVID czar updates Senate on pandemic policies, challenges


As once widely embraced health-and-safety standards and practices fade from consciousness, freshmen entering college during this third calendar year of the COVID-19 pandemic present a unique set of challenges for University leaders and health officials.

When Joe Suyama, the new director of Pitt’s COVID-19 Medical Response Office (CMRO), used “peanut butter” in the same sentence as pandemic preparation at a recent Senate Council meeting, he wasn’t being flippant about a tired issue, but rather presenting a complex situation in a uniquely relatable way.

Touting the rapport Pitt health leaders had developed with students during the pandemic, Suyama said “we’ve developed a relationship and some trust. I think that’s been wonderful. But this year, we have brought on board a group of first-year students — a quarter of our population across every campus. They’re brand new to this Pitt family. Brand new to the things that we do. Brand new to the expectations and such. And that was sort of an oversight from our perspective to say, ‘How do we need to bring them on board in a gentle way but also convince them this is really important?’”

That’s where the peanut butter analogy comes in.

Comparing “pre-college” high schoolers with “kindergarteners” who simply can’t be trusted handling a potentially messy snack food, Suyama explained that, when proverbial peanut butter is finally offered to older, ostensibly wiser college freshmen, it comes with an expectation.

“You can be trusted not to smear it on your lunch meat, but there’s a personal responsibility there: Understand your own risk,” he said. “And that’s what COVID, I think, has become, the peanut butter of (today’s college) generation, where your personal responsibility means you need to know your risk. Know when to wear the mask. Know when to get boosted. Know when to stay at home. Know when to do the things that protect others.”

Suyama serves as associate professor in Pitt’s Department of Emergency Medicine and chief of emergency medicine services at Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC’s emergency department. He also recently co-chaired the UPMC Pandemic Flu Task Force. At the Sept. 15 Senate Council meeting, Suyama explained that his CMRO predecessor John Williams (professor of pediatrics, microbiology and molecular genetics) asked Suyama to take the reins after Williams’ two years of heading up Pitt’s pandemic health team.

“And then I haven’t seen him since,” Suyama quipped to the council. “But we are still hopefully in good hands with the same group that we’ve been maintaining. Dr. Williams is still part of the team. But in essence, the CMRO was built to be a response unit, (and) emergency preparedness is what I do. When it comes to this transition from being response unit to recovery, that has a lot to do with emergency preparedness. So I’m prepared to sort of take this on, and hopefully shepherd this group as well as the University into the next phase.”

Emphasizing the influence COVID continues to exert in Allegheny County and nationwide, Suyama noted that in the U.S., “no less than 350 people die a day from COVID” while still 60,000 test positive each day. “So it is still a condition that affects every facet of this country in our lives. So we must take it seriously.”

Despite the still-daunting numbers, Suyama stressed that current behaviors tell us more than data about where the virus may be headed. Though 2022 may be more “business as usual” than 2020, the phrase doesn’t equate to “moving on without challenge.”

“In fact, this may be one of the biggest challenges in getting back to normal,” he said. “Business as usual means normalizing the behavior of wearing a mask when you feel it’s necessary, especially at work (and) when you feel it’s appropriate for the social circumstances. It’s to make sure that you stay at home when you’re sick … knowing your limits when you’re sick is important. Knowing when to get tested is important as well. Normalizing those behaviors has become really important for us.”

Chris Bonneau, political science professor, asked about Pitt decreasing its capacity of isolation beds to about 25 compared to an increase at Penn State University. “Are we better prepared … or are we expecting less of a bump than they are,” he asked.

“Although we have about 130 cases … we’re monitoring right now, 30 of those are actively in some type of isolation situation, but not all of them are in isolation housing,” Suyama explained. “To your point, that question has come up and we are actively looking at what exactly is the best and the most and the right capacity size.”

Other questions concerned the latest omicron-variant booster shot, who should get them and when. Suyama said “unequivocally,” anyone who is eligible for a booster shot should get one as soon as possible. Those who have experienced COVID in the past two to three months and those who got their previous booster shot less than two months ago should wait until those time periods have passed.

Suyama said the Pitt Vaccination and Health Connection Hub has a “very elaborate” scheduling system to help faculty, staff and students coordinate their vaccinations and booster shots. “And really, it’s also the time to get your flu shot … so (we’re) not underestimating the value of getting that.”

Suyama explained that Centers for Disease Control as well as Pitt consider the two-shot, pre-booster regimen as “fully vaccinated,” but changes in the variant that causes community spread could require ongoing updates “much like flu (vaccine) is updated on a yearly basis. We may see that happen,” he said.  

Boosters have benefits beyond any natural immunity that comes from exposure, Suyama said, because of the “inability to fully predict the length and then the type of protection you would get from that exposure and illness.” The booster, therefore, “would basically provide a standardized boost in regard to that focused Omicron specific antibody response that you have.”

Addressing the question of fluctuating masking requirements given the dense, concentrated nature of Pitt’s campus, Suyama said the difficulty in setting a stricter campus standard comes from its integral connection to the greater Pittsburgh community.

“Throughout the pandemic, we have always been a bit better than the community,” he noted. “But now that we’ve opened up and our greatest risks aren’t necessarily in the classroom still, it’s what we do on the weekends — what you do socially. And that includes what’s going on in the community. If we see that the community is going in the wrong direction, well, what we don’t want to have happen is the potential for the classroom to become a source, and that’s where we have the only (control). We can’t control behavior otherwise.”

Referencing Pitt’s decision to reinstate mask requirements last spring, Chancellor Patrick Gallagher asked Suyama about the “kind of yo-yo effect with mask-on, mask-off” policies, noting he understood CDC guidelines to be based on not just transmission rates but also resource utilization, hospitalization levels and other factors.

“I couldn’t tell you which one leads on any given basis,” Suyama said, “but I can tell you, at least the UPMC footprint, we’ve had no change in a plateau that we hit late summer in regard to the numbers of cases. So as much as the data nationally looks like it’s heading in a really nice direction, we hit a plateau, and we haven’t changed from a moderately high number. About a quarter of the cases that we saw at the peak, we’re still seeing that every day in our hospitals.”

Other new business

Senate President Robin Kear shared that the Senate officers wrote a letter of support to establish an ombudsman office. The effort to create such a resource is being led by Provost Ann Cudd’s office and Pitt’s Office for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion.

The proposal originated in Faculty Assembly, which considered a centralized ombuds program to serve all stakeholders. Pitt currently has a network of school-based ombudsmen that provide services to graduate students and postdocs.

“This is the very beginnings there, but there have been requests over the years from members of assembly from faculty for a more robust ombuds presence for faculty and staff,” Kear said on Sept. 15. “So, this potential office would be a centralized office for ombuds concerns.”

Lu-In Wang, vice provost for faculty affairs, earlier shared that the ombuds office would "foster and support an equitable, positive, and productive living, learning, and working environment at the University. It would fulfill its mission by assisting individuals throughout and at all levels of the university to navigate complex relationships, work and academic environments, and university policies," she said. "The office also would serve as a source of insight and guidance for university leadership by bringing systemic concerns to the attention of the University administration for resolution."

Kear told the University Times the faculty supports an ombuds office meant to "fill a gap in informal issue resolution and can point users to other resources and formal avenues as necessary," she said. "Over the years, faculty have asked for such an office, and we believe it will be a welcome development to many faculty and staff."

Shannon O. Wells is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at shannonw@pitt.edu.

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