New COVID policy is right, but it isn’t enough

Griffin Perrault, Edtor-in-Chief

On Thursday afternoon myself, along with several other people who had attended a small, unmasked gathering the previous week, were informed that we had been identified as potential “close contacts” of a COVID-positive peer. The gathering was organized by a local community action organization and had delegated one of its members as a contact tracer for the rest of the group; our tracing was thus completed by a member of that group, who advocated we all seek testing at the earliest possible time.

Knowing that vaccinated students were exempted from testing protocols at the University – we were not even provided with the option to schedule a test on Aura – one of our close contacts reached out to Student Health about our unique situation. At this point we were informed that the University would only test students if they were themselves symptomatic or if they were recently in contact with a positive individual. Despite our exposure to this person, we fulfilled neither of those conditions and were thus unable to be tested under the University’s protocol at the time. (I will note that this policy, as of Wednesday, has been changed; the University now offers once-weekly testing for positive vaccinated individuals. This is a significant step in the right direction, but as I will explain here, does not address the larger issue of campus COVID response this semester).

On our own initiative, we instead decided to receive PCR testing from Evangelical Community Hospital’s drive-thru testing center, waiting a full day in anticipation of results. When they failed to come in on the timeline described by the center’s staff, we supplemented them with at-home rapid testing we purchased from CVS; our intention was to obtain some form of definite results before classes resumed. At this point we both received calls from University Contact Tracing. Expressing our confusion about policy, Contact Tracing assured us that, even in the presence of a positive case, asymptomatic students would not have to quarantine themselves.

So upon receiving results from the at-home rapid testing which suggested my roommate was positive for COVID-19, initially we assumed quarantining in the apartment would be sufficient. Indeed, perhaps it was a false positive; I had tested negative on the same extraordinarily sensitive test despite sharing housing, silverware, food, and oxygen with the supposedly positive roommate. Surely the University would provide immediate confirmatory testing to help us figure this out. This was not to be; instead, my roommate was told to pack up her things for a night in isolation housing. Even after a second rapid test was administered and returned back a negative result, the University remained insistent that she spend the night at the “COVID hotel” pending results from Evangelical’s PCR testing. At this point the Evangelical results showed no signs of returning, and University-provided testing was not to be administered until Monday – meaning she may be spending as many as two days in isolation, missing clubs, extracurriculars, and potentially even classes.

Through it all, the University’s moratorium on remote class modality meant that all of us would not be able to quarantine effectively from these classes without some kind of official intervention from the University. Mind you, this is the same University Student Health which first refused and then delayed our requests for testing to the following week, provided us with multiple instances of directly conflicting information, offered almost no guidance on the process of seeking out, receiving or reporting to relevant authorities the results of testing, and immediately isolated a student based on a self-administered test that they neither confirmed nor witnessed. 

In her May 21 outline to campus about Fall 2021 instruction, Provost Mermann-Jozwiak noted that students experiencing difficulty with the return to exclusively in-person classes should follow the accommodations process through the Office of Accessibility Resources (OAR), which registers students with physical and learning disabilities. Whether isolation from COVID-19 constituted a “disability” sufficient to receive accommodations, or whether the OAR would even process the request form on the extremely short notice that COVID-19 usually offers, the Provost did not explain. For potentially positive students, this opacity provides a powerful disincentive to be transparent with the University about one’s COVID status.

Regardless if our experience derives from lack of communication, adverse circumstances, or opaqueness of policy, it was consistently an uphill battle – against the University – to act responsibly in the midst of a deadly pandemic. Literally hours of time and hundreds of dollars were spent to receive testing results between us close contacts. Discontinuing online and hybrid modalities while barring professors from utilizing them, as well as informing us that asymptomatic positive cases explicitly did not need to be quarantined before isolating students based on unconfirmed, at-home positive testing, gave us further pause in acting with tact or accountability. In all these circumstances, the University displayed a worrying lack of responsiveness to the obstructions presented to potentially positive students. Such oversight is especially worrying in the shadow of the Delta variant, responsible for increasing case numbers and hospitalizations in children and young people, as well as hundreds of thousands of breakthrough cases.

There are some readers who will object that we, the close contacts, acted irresponsibly in joining a small gathering without masks. I challenge those readers to defend the University’s putting on two nights of concerts attended by hundreds if not thousands of University students, scores of them (to judge by pictures taken of the event) lacking masks. I also challenge them to explain why massive attendance at Super Saturday or the Friday evening fraternity parties does not draw their opprobrium. And I would like to be clear that I am not necessarily attacking either of those functions, but simply explaining that perfectly normalized and often explicitly University-sanctioned events could easily lead to very much the same results as ours.

Lastly, I will point out that we consistently acted well in excess of our responsibilities in getting tested, reporting those results voluntarily and repeatedly drawing attention to our situation. Nothing in University policy required us to – at our own expense – obtain PCR testing from Evangelical or at-home rapid testing from CVS, both of which the University relied on to determine whether or not some of us would be isolated. Nothing required us to consistently reach out to Contact Tracing or Student Health about our situation, beyond our own health concerns and sense of civic responsibility. Indeed, our frantic search for answers was often completely improvised, for lack of comprehensive (or even consistent) University guidance. While the new COVID-19 testing policy meaningfully protects vaccinated students worried about exposure to a COVID-positive individual, the jumbled response we observed seems to extend well beyond testing to encompass class accommodations, isolation policy and communication between University institutions. It is clear that, at the very least, the full process of testing to isolation and release needs to be comprehensively laid out for students and staff as in previous semesters.

Yet, even with the capacity to volunteer for testing as a vaccinated student, very few individuals would choose to sacrifice time, energy and academic responsibilities for the chance at being isolated in an off-campus hotel for several days without the ability to attend class. Many University students may simply ignore indications they had been exposed to a COVID-positive individual, and the University would be none the wiser if it occurred off-campus. Administration must not only clarify its Fall 2021 COVID policy, but provide robust accommodations and assurances for positive cases. No student should feel forced to choose between protecting the public health and meeting their academic obligations, but current University policy makes that choice immediate and pressing.

(Visited 87 times, 2 visits today)