An epidemiologist accuses University of Canterbury of not taking Covid seriously enough. David Williams reports

A year ago, as the Omicron variant of Covid spread like wildfire, university students were making headlines – and not for burning couches.

In Dunedin, some youngsters admitted making a pact not to get tested if they were sick, and isolation rules weren’t followed in some halls of residence. Because students make up an outsized proportion of Dunedin’s population they were at the forefront of the city’s Omicron wave.

Further north, in Christchurch, a case was confirmed at a University of Canterbury hall of residence before lectures began.

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At the time, student association president Pierce Crowley told The Press it was a “a bit jarring” to have Covid-19 cases with orientation week on the horizon. “But I’m confident Ilam [Apartments] will be handling it well … and the university has good processes in place.”

How did those processes fare against Omicron? Not well, it turns out.

Like other universities, thousands of University of Canterbury staff and students became infected – not all of them on campus, of course – in a way that seemed entirely predictable.

The situation raised many questions. Were vaccines seen as a panacea? Was there a push for in-person learning despite the risks? What was the expert advice, and did university management follow it?

In March last year, Newsroom asked universities to provide documentation underpinning their Covid policies. Most complied, but it took another eight months, and a complaint to the Ombudsman, to get the information from Canterbury.

We’ve delved into the public-excluded meeting minutes, emails with experts, and draft documents to unpick how the vaccine mandate policy at Canterbury evolved and was enacted – and then, a few months later, was scrapped, following the Government’s move to quash public sector vaccine mandates.

What emerges from the documentation is University of Canterbury never seriously considered shifting to online-only lectures, despite knowing other universities were doing so. It also favoured in-person learning while its own documentation rated the risk of serious harm to staff and students from Covid as “significant” and a “good possibility”.

The university didn’t ask for updated expert advice to take account of Omicron, either.

“I think they were guilty of not taking it seriously enough.”
– Rod Jackson

Of course, the university had other mitigation measures in place, such as mask-wearing and distancing. (One university staffer tells Newsroom mask-wearing was excellent in lectures, but “when I walked through buildings there was highly variable use”.)

But Dr Rod Jackson, professor of epidemiology at the University of Auckland, who delivered his first lectures last year online, says Canterbury University shouldn’t state – as it did in its risk assessment – it was taking a “precautionary approach” if it didn’t consider online-only learning.

“I think they were guilty of not taking it seriously enough.”

Not accounting for Omicron in its initial advice from experts was a mistake, Jackson says.

Scientific research from April last year suggests Omicron’s reproduction number – a measure of how contagious it is – was triple that of Delta.

Jackson says because Omicron spread so rapidly it didn’t matter that it had a lower fatality rate – less than one death per 1000 cases, compared with about one-in-100 for the Delta strain. Widespread infections meant “a lot more people actually dying”.

Paul O’Flaherty, the University of Canterbury’s executive director of people, culture and campus life, said in an emailed statement attending the university in-person wasn’t mandatory, and students and staff who chose not to come to campus were provided with alternative, remote options.

Students and staff were isolated in 2021, which presented mental health risks, he says, and feedback from students “highlighted a desire for face-to-face learning to be made available”.

“The decision was made that, with a range of Covid mitigations in place, on-campus learning should go ahead,” O’Flaherty says.

“There was also ongoing education for students and staff, including repeated messaging about staying home when ill, the ability of staff to work from home, and the option for students to study online.”

Adela Kardos, the general counsel and registrar (Pouroki), said in a statement that advisors to the university council, and the council itself, “were aware of the impact of Omicron”.

“The presence of Omicron was one consideration which formed part of many other considerations when the policy was adopted by council on February 2, 2022.”

The university says its staff and student community, numbering more than 27,000, reported 3642 positive cases in semester one, and it was notified of two hospitalisations and no deaths.

(Because of under-reporting, the actual number of positive cases will have been far higher. And what’s not captured in the figures is the incidence of Long Covid.)

However, universities shouldn’t be considered in isolation.

Rod Jackson says the biggest weakness of the university’s planning was not considering the people who would become infected when the virus travelled home with students.

“The biggest threat from Omicron was not the proportion of infected people, it was … just the huge numbers who potentially would get infected.”

Which brings into question the wisdom of allowing thousands of people on campus.

Pre-Christmas meeting

On December 15, 2021, the University of Canterbury council executive met to consider a report, called “risk assessment of Covid Vaccination Certificate mandate” – known as the CVC report.

They met on the sixth floor of the Matariki building, where vice-chancellor Cheryl de la Rey has an office. De la Rey was there, as was chancellor and council chair Sue McCormack (who has since left), and council member Peter Ballantyne, a former partner at Deloitte who went on to be deputy chair of the Canterbury District Health Board.

Several top managers from the university attended the meeting, including general counsel Adela Kardos and O’Flaherty. A lawyer from Buddle Findlay provided external legal advice.

The university’s health and safety policy requires “all reasonably practicable steps” to be taken to protect people. There are also obligations under the Health and Safety at Work Act.

University of Canterbury’s Professor Michael Plank, the mathematics modeller who became an advisor for the all-of-government Covid response, gave the university this advice:

“The primary risk created by Covid-19 is to people’s health. It is estimated that with a vaccination rate of 85 percent of students and 90 percent of staff, there is a 10-25 percent chance of fatality, where transmission may have occurred on campus, and a >75 percent chance of severe illness.

“With 100 percent of people on campus vaccinated, this reduces to a 0-10 percent chance of fatality and a 25-75 percent chance of severe illness.”

Canterbury, as a province, was already highly vaccinated. By December 10, 2021, 93 percent of the eligible population was fully vaccinated, which was reflected in the university staff vaccination numbers – 1594 of 1700.

But Covid-19 was expected to spread as internal and external borders open, the report noted, “particularly as schools reopen”, and half of its students were expected to come from other provinces.

The CVC report contained a striking claim, made with reference to a UK Health Security Agency report: “The risk posed to others by an unvaccinated person is about 10 times higher than the risk posed by a fully vaccinated person.”

(The UK report notes the data focuses on the Delta variant, which was dominant in the UK, and warned vaccines aren’t 100 percent effective, and protection against infection and symptomatic disease wanes over time.)

To some, the university might have appeared to be acting cautiously by acknowledging the risk posed by unvaccinated people, and suggesting measures to reduce the risks to the vast majority who were vaccinated. On the other hand, the executive council had advice before acknowledging a fatality risk of up to 10 percent.

It had another option – not to have in-person classes, at least initially. This wasn’t discussed, according to the record from the 44-minute meeting.

As the last university to decide on a vaccine mandate, University of Canterbury knew other institutions had gone online-only for semester one. (“UC was slower than most universities in proposing that the policy be put in place,” the university executive acknowledged later.)

The university’s CVC report rated the risk of someone becoming seriously ill because of Covid transmission on campus as “significant”, and the likelihood a “good possibility”.

Somewhat counterintuitively, the report also said a vaccine mandate would make a “significant” reduction in the likelihood of infection, transmission, and serious illness.

“The risk of infection at multiple points across the university is high,” the risk assessment said.

(Other risks weighed included widespread illness preventing people from teaching or attending classes, and the potential for unvaccinated staff and students to take potentially costly legal action.)

A missing tool from the Covid protection toolkit was rapid antigen tests. Plank suggested regular RATs or saliva testing of staff and students be used to pick up cases early, so infected people could isolate before triggering large outbreaks.

However, public availability of RATs was slow, and later university council minutes noted universities were “not currently a priority sector” to receive them.

At the conclusion of its December 2021 meeting, the university council executive noted: “The least tolerable risk occurs where UC does not implement a CVC mandate.”

It approved the mandate in principle, subject to consultation, health and safety, and legal reviews, and checks it complied with legislation.

The next day, December 16, the Ministry of Health confirmed the first case of Omicron had been detected. Within a month it became the country’s dominant variant.

The game had changed, but the university’s advice stayed the same.

“The presence of Omicron was one consideration.”
– Adela Kardos

Details about consultation on the proposed policy, and what would happen next, emerged from a council executive meeting on January 18 last year.

If the policy was approved – which seemed highly likely – it would be considered by the full council on February 2, with a view to bringing it in at the start of the first semester, on February 21.

Minutes from the council executive meeting stated: “Omicron had become a serious issue in overseas universities. It was important that the new variant was considered as part of any plan/response/alternative option.”

An independent review of the CVC risk assessment, completed by PlanitSafe in January, said: “The arrival of the Omicron variant into MIQ in NZ is being closely monitored.”

Yet, the CVC report to the full council a few weeks later made no mention of Omicron and Plank’s advice was unchanged.

We asked the university if the council requested or received any update of its vaccine policy advice to reflect the difference of Omicron.

Kardos, the general counsel and registrar (Pouroki), said, in an emailed statement, advisors to the university council, and the council itself, “were aware of the impact of Omicron”.

“The presence of Omicron was one consideration which formed part of many other considerations when the policy was adopted by council on February 2, 2022.”

Yet the minutes from that meeting – at least, those that aren’t redacted – make no explicit mention of Omicron.

On the morning of February 2, University of Canterbury experts Matthew Hobbs, a senior lecturer in public health, and Lukas Marek, a researcher and lecturer in spatial data science, co-authored a piece in The Conversation.

They wrote Omicron was more transmissible than earlier variants. Its advantage was thought to be its ability to evade immunity and quickly infect the upper respiratory tract.

“New Zealand can expect a rapid and steep rise in infections, especially as we’ve already had several potential super-spreading events.”

It was best to limit widespread transmission for as long as possible. “This reduces opportunities for the virus to replicate, which is when mutations occur, potentially extending the pandemic.”

The PlanitSafe review of the university risk assessment acknowledged the campus was at significant risk of Covid-19 transmission, given enclosed areas, limited ventilation, limited ability to socially distance, large numbers of people (particularly students and visitors), and the use of shared areas such as lecture theatres, bathrooms and kitchens.

Reviewer Frank McCutcheon said the university’s risk assessment was “very comprehensive” and, crucially, endorsed by Plank. But McCutcheon questioned the contrast between the level of identified risk and the university’s planned actions.

“From a health and safety perspective, it is not clear from the risk assessment that a risk rating of Significant (CVC mandate scenario) is acceptable (tolerable). The appetite statement does not provide that.

“While a vaccine mandate is a reasonably practicable step to reduce risk, the acceptance of a risk rating of Significant is a PCBU decision.”

(Under health and safety laws, a PCBU is a “person conducting a business or undertaking” – the entity with the primary duty of care to workers.)

The risk profile also changes if policies aren’t followed. Adherence to the university’s vaccine mandate was largely taken on trust, it seems, and checks were patchy.

While those staying in halls of residence were required to be vaccinated, University of Canterbury students staying elsewhere weren’t required to show their pass as part of enrolment, something required in Otago.

O’Flaherty tells Newsroom public health measures, such as mask wearing and physical distancing, were enforced “as and when government policy required”. “It was not practicable (and not a requirement) to check every vaccine pass, however spot checks were undertaken.”

In noting PlanitSafe’s external review, the executive council’s January 14 minutes said: “No clarifications or changes were requested by the executive committee”.

It was only in March that it became clear – in the documentation, at least – Plank’s advice was based on the Delta variant.

“It is almost certain that there will be hospitalised cases and there is a realistic possibility of at least one death as a result of transmission on campus.” – Michael Plank

In March last year, the then Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced wide-ranging changes to Covid policies, including the removal of vaccine mandates – except for the health and disability sector, aged care facilities, Corrections staff and border and MIQ workers.

The University of Canterbury council’s executive committee, and many council members, met on March 28 to consider rescinding its vaccine mandate.

(While legal advice was withheld by the university, as it is privileged, it’s not a stretch to think the university felt legally covered because of the Government’s wider vaccine mandate but when that ended it would leave the institution more exposed.)

Perhaps the most interesting part of the discussion was a background briefing provided by O’Flaherty, again supported by advice from mathematics modeller Plank.

Plank’s report, appended to O’Flaherty’s, says the advice he provided in early December 2021 was based on data available at the time, based on the Delta variant. The tone about the risk from unvaccinated people struck a different tone from that contained in the university’s January risk assessment.

“Modelling suggests that, for those who are fully vaccinated or boosted, there is only a small reduction in risk as a result of continuing to prevent unvaccinated people from coming to campus.

“This is because of a combination of reduced (though non-zero) effectiveness of vaccines against infection for Omicron, relatively fast waning of immunity against infection, and the build-up of significant immunity from prior infection in the UC community.

“In the model, continuing vaccine requirements after the peak in cases reduces the risk of getting infected on campus by a negligible amount if vaccine effectiveness is at the low end of the estimated range, and by up to 3 percent if vaccine effectiveness is at the high end of the range.

“As an increasing proportion of the population becomes infected and subsequently recovers, the marginal benefit of restricting contact with unvaccinated people gets smaller over time.

“For comparison, in a similar model for the Delta variant and with negligible levels of prior infection in the UC community, restricting unvaccinated people from campus reduced the risk of getting infected by 55-75 percent.”

In those circumstances, while the risk of hospitalisation from Omicron is lower, with very high infection rates, Prof Plank concludes “the Omicron variant still poses a significant health threat to communities”.

“It is almost certain that there will be hospitalised cases and there is a realistic possibility of at least one death as a result of transmission on campus.”

The university’s vaccine mandate was rescinded, on April 8, in line with Government policy.

High-pressure decisions

At University of Canterbury, like elsewhere, it was a high-pressure situation.

Some university staffers pulled long hours over the summer break to ensure the institution was fulfilling its obligations to keep its people safe, and complying with the law and government edicts.

There were probably legal question marks about enforcement of mitigation measures.

However, messages about Omicron’s rapid spread were clear, with serious implications.

Setting aside the health advice, the university could have released the information earlier.

Initially, in response to our request in March last year, University of Canterbury provided a copy of its withdrawn Covid-19 policy.

Then, in June, registrar Adela Kardos said: “UC’s approach was based, rightly or wrongly, on the view that given the UC Covid policy is no longer in place, it would be more factual to provide the information that it did.”

It only released 108 pages of information last November after we complained to the Ombudsman. When asked for the latest estimate of Covid-19 cases or infections in the student body, the university said the information “does not exist”.

The figure of 3642 positive cases for staff and students in semester one was provided by O’Flaherty just last week.

This doesn’t sit well with University of Otago epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker, who says: “We are institutions who, I guess, should be beacons of both evidence-informed policy and also transparency. And as a society, we will only learn if the default option is that the rationale for what we’re doing is made public wherever possible.”

The ability for universities to move to online teaching when infection was peaking was important, Baker says, especially as Omicron showed vaccines weren’t effective enough at preventing transmission.

“The initial optimism was that vaccines could reduce transmission and it turned out they weren’t very good at that. They did reduce a little bit but they mainly provided individual protection from severe illness.”

Other measures to protect the vulnerable and the unvaccinated are called public health and social measures.

“Things like distance teaching, obviously, are great for that,” Baker says. “So I think that that’s something the university should have been really focusing on.”

Last year, when we spoke with Jackson, the epidemiologist from University of Auckland, he thought primary and secondary schools were more likely to be “serious spreading settings” than universities.

“My guess is that very few probably happened in lecture theatres, because [firstly] … everyone was vaccinated, and secondly, if they were all wearing masks, which they were required to, then those super-spreading settings were reduced.” 

He was also delighted to see universities bring in vaccine mandates so rapidly.

Yesterday he underlined Baker’s point about distance learning: “With all that uncertainty you need to err on the side of caution.”

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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