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The Carletonian

Carleton’s COVID-19 response is unscientific

Of the six individuals on Carleton’s COVID-19 Core Team, three are vice presidents (student life, treasurer, Chief of Staff), one is a dean, one is Director of Campus Security and one is Director of Digital Strategy and Public Affairs. No one on the team has a background in public health. It is hardly surprising, then, that Carleton’s COVID-19 response plan meshes poorly with what scientists already know about the virus.

This piece isn’t an argument for amped-up restrictions, nor is it an argument against all COVID-19 restrictions. I believe that the vast majority — including myself — are willing to undergo whatever restrictions are necessary for the greater good. What I oppose are unnecessary restrictions that do not actually solve problems. My goal in this article is to assess how well Carleton’s COVID-19 response lines up to the science it ostensibly follows and propose reasonable alternatives. All sources are hyperlinked in the online version of this article, and I encourage you to do your own research.

It makes sense to be wary of COVID-19: there are few things scarier than invisible viruses. But the virus we are dealing with now is not the virus we met in March 2020. We now know, for instance, that COVID-19 does not pose a sizable threat to our age group: Of the roughly one million COVID-19 deaths in America,  6,199 of those—about 0.62%—were people 18-29 years old. That same group accounted for about 0.43% of all COVID hospitalizations. The science suggests that the vast majority of college students have little to fear when it comes to COVID-19. 

It’s true that we share this campus with faculty and staff who are more vulnerable to severe illness. But I don’t buy that Carleton is at all likely to cause that illness. A contact-tracing study at Cornell University found that vaccinated faculty instructors had a 0.047% chance — at worst — of catching COVID-19 from the classroom (for students, it was 1.092% at worst). To be fair, Cornell classes are much larger than ours, so I assume they’re held in lecture halls that keep professors at a distance. But I’ve had several professors who used comparably large rooms for social distancing purposes, mandated masks and moved class to Zoom when case counts increased (as should be their right). There is no reason why faculty should not be able to reduce their risk of catching COVID-19 to similarly minuscule odds.

Our greatest defense against COVID-19, of course, is the vaccine. Simply being fully vaccinated with Pfizer or Moderna reduces likelihood of severe Delta by 95% and severe Omicron (which is already significantly milder than Delta) by 72%. Fully vaccinated adults are 12 times less likely to be hospitalized with Omicron than their unvaccinated peers and 94% less likely to require a ventilator or die. More broadly, recent studies estimate that the vaccine has prevented 2.2 million deaths, 17 million hospitalizations and 66.1 million infections. The COVID-19 vaccine is one of the most impressive feats of scientific engineering I will ever live to see. No one can reasonably argue that it is not a hugely effective defense against COVID-19.

We, as a campus, are in a comfortable spot with regard to COVID-19. 99.7% of students and 98% of faculty are fully vaccinated; many from both groups already have antibodies, which  provides additional protection. It is difficult to imagine how, exactly, our situation could further improve. Carleton implicitly acknowledged the virus’s diminished impact on April 22, when the Core Team announced it would be basing its policy decisions not on case counts but “the impact those trends are having on campus operations.” Unfortunately, these policy decisions — lengthy isolations and blanket mask mandates — are ill-suited for the current moment and cause more harm than they prevent.

the CDC announced it was shortening its recommended isolation time from ten days to five followed by a period of masking. They cited data showing that “the majority of [COVID-19] transmission occurs… in the 1-2 days prior to the onset of symptoms and the 2-3 days after.” The Core Team immediately announced they would be disobeying this recommendation, explaining that we are “a residential community.” To this day, testing positive for COVID-19 at Carleton precipitates at least seven full days in isolation—ten if the eighth-day rapid test is positive.

I have a friend who has had COVID-19 twice. He tested negative twice using his own rapid tests almost immediately after entering isolation. SHAC administrators quickly dismissed the test results, only citing “epidemiological reasoning” they did not enumerate. A recent study of COVID-positive students at a large, primarily residential college yielded similar findings: 83% of those students tested negative after the first five days in isolation, most within the first three. I should note that this study was recent and among the first of its kind, so it has not yet been peer-reviewed. I cite it because its implications underscore that the CDC’s guidelines are perhaps weightier epidemiological reasoning than Carleton’s. Students do not need seven days to be free of the virus.

Lengthy isolations additionally have the potential to cause harm beyond mere sickness. The mental health impact of isolation ought to be obvious. Students must abruptly pack up and move into an unfamiliar house, then spend the next week barred from campus. The lack of movement and stimulation can disrupt sleep, amplify unnecessary screen time and make concentrating on work a Herculean task. Social interaction becomes a luxury. Many students told me they fell behind on their assignments during isolation — sometimes irreparably — while a freshman I spoke to could not eat any of the delivered Green2Go meals due to dietary and sensory issues.

Additionally, Carleton’s isolation guidelines can (and do) backfire against the college. I’m sure many remember last Winter Term when Carleton failed to provide adequate isolation space and ended up quarantining numerous students on bare mattresses in The Cave. That’s on Carleton, not the students. The college would avoid more incidents like this if it adhered to CDC guidelines or tested isolated students more frequently to ensure everyone is moving through the space as quickly as possible. Furthermore, I can’t imagine that the isolation guidelines do not cause some students to avoid testing altogether. If they know that testing positive will cost them a week of their term, would they not be less inclined to play by the college’s rules? 

Interestingly, Carleton has also disobeyed CDC guidelines for the sake of lessening restrictions. The The CDC’s definition of a “close contact” is “anyone who was less than 6 feet away from you for a combined total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period.” Carleton’s definition is “roommates, housemates, and intimate partners.” The Core Team states that its reasoning for the new “close contact” definition was to “make a… transition” from “universal restrictions” to “individual and contextual choices.” In the sense that potentially infected people can now slip through testing, go on to infect others and further strain campus operations, the Core Team certainly has upheld individual choice. But step into any building on campus and you’ll see that Carleton is still far from finished with universal restrictions: Specifically, its blanket mask mandates.

We seem to be trapped between two cyclical extremes. We all know the pattern by now: After the first four weeks of baseline testing, Carleton allows its students to unmask indoors. Two weeks later, though, as if shocked that positivity rates have suddenly surmounted the 2% threshold needed for “medium” alert level, the administration once again mandates masks in every single indoor space and the mandate remains in place for the rest of the term.

I don’t have a problem with all mask mandates. The Core Team has stated multiple times that large social gatherings cause the majority of campus COVID-19 cases; while it’s difficult to regulate every Dow rager, it makes sense to require masking during large college events, in social hubs like dining halls, or after students have returned from partying it up over break. But to mandate masking in every building on campus implies that students stand an equal chance of getting COVID-19 in any indoor space, and that simply doesn’t add up.

According to the CDC, COVID-19 is transmitted chiefly by inhaling airborne particles such as those a nearby sick person might exhale or sneeze out. You usually have to be within six feet of that person to be infected. That’s not going to happen in Anderson Hall, the Libe or virtually any other academic building, because people usually come to these buildings alone or with friends they are already in touch with and pass the vast majority of their time confined to a single desk. One could argue that a single desk might become contaminated—but the science shows otherwise: You have  less than a 1 in 10,000 chance of catching COVID from a surface. That chance drops exponentially further if you wash your hands often and avoid touching your face, and it essentially drops to zero if you clean your surfaces with disinfectant. (The funniest part of these rules is that thin cloth masks, which satisfy the mandate and are actively distributed by the college, are dubiously effective anyway.) Carleton would serve us better by distributing materials about hygienic practices and making hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes consistently available.

Though I criticize blindly imposed restrictions, I will not ignore those who stand to benefit the most from taking caution. I have heard from several immunocompromised students and faculty who fear being left in the dust as the immunocompetent rush to get back to normal. Some have even written in the Carletonian, articulating the importance of hearing immunocompromised students’ voices far more eloquently than I could. There are numerous highly effective measures immunocompromised people can take to protect themselves from this virus. Unfortunately, I found that Carleton does not sufficiently advocate or advance these measures. Thus begins the most tragic act of Carleton’s COVID-19 response: How poorly the college communicates with the immunocompromised.

First things first: Therapeutics. Despite the cynical discourse, vaccines are, in fact, hugely effective on the immunocompromised. An April 2022 Atlantic article reports that fully vaccinated immunocompromised people “achieve most of the same benefits as healthy people,” including an 87% decrease in hospitalization likelihood. You’ll note that I said “most.” That’s because immunocompetent people see even greater decreases in hospitalization and death rates. Luckily, the CDC permits anyone over 18 who self-identifies as moderately to severely immunocompromised to get their fourth and fifth shots right now.  Even more protection is available in the form of prescription medications: Evusheld inhibits infection rates and Paxlovid lessens symptoms; both are currently being distributed but are rarely spoken of. It would not be difficult for Carleton to work directly with students in need of vaccines or medication and advocate on their behalf. Doing so could go a long way.

Carleton should additionally make it as easy as possible to get  N95 and KN95 masks. While cloth masks are unreliable at best, N95s, which filter out 95% of aerosols, are a different breed entirely. A CDC study found that people who wear N95s indoors are about 83% less likely to catch COVID-19 than unmasked individuals. The American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists adds some perspective to this data: According to their research, if you are wearing an N95 mask indoors and within six feet of an unmasked infected person, it would take a whopping 2.5 hours before you receive an infectious dose. These masks don’t need to be mandated to work: If you’re the only one in the room wearing an N95, you’re already in a good spot. 

It’s laudable that the college is distributing N95s to students for free. Yet there are still a few issues: The only place to get these masks is in the Dean of Students Office in Sevy, which cannot be accessed at all hours. Furthermore, students have told me that they have encountered shortages. The most sensible solution seems to me to be to implement a need-based system wherein vulnerable students can have multiple N95s delivered to their mailboxes (one mask can be used for 2-3 days, so just three would last a week). Given that about 3% of the broader US population is immunocompromised, Carleton’s immunocompromised population is likely small enough that a program like this would not significantly dent Carleton’s funds or N95 reserves.

We will never be able to eradicate COVID-19 altogether. But we have made astounding progress since March of 2020. We have a powerful vaccine, preventive drugs, effective masks, a college lush with resources and, most importantly, a wealth of scientific evidence. I have to wonder why it is that Carleton refuses to take advantage of said evidence—why the college clings to long, lonely isolations and ineffective mask mandates while providing scant assistance to the immunocompromised. I can only conclude that the college is engaging in theater. In an America rife with fear and sensationalism, authoritative declarations project strength and show donors and prospective students that Carleton is taking COVID-19 seriously. But taking COVID-19 seriously means taking the science seriously, and following the science does not mean picking and choosing when the science is correct and when it is wrong.

The college can craft a better COVID-19 response plan for everyone on campus. First, spread information via campus publications about hand-washing and surface-cleaning and provide consistent access to disinfectants. Second, add realistic nuance to mask guidelines by designating low-risk areas mask-optional. Third, follow the CDC’s findings on isolation and consider allowing students to test out earlier. Finally, establish advocacy sources to help immunocompromised students get the assistance they need to safely live campus life. Whether we continue following the same stilted script or raise the curtain on a new act is, as always, up to Carleton’s COVID-19 Core Team.

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    Dann HurlbertMay 30, 2022 at 1:31 pm

    This is a thoughtful essay addressing real issues many colleges and businesses are facing. I also appreciate your desire to encourage more open discussion on an issue that can make members of our community feel isolated or excluded. More discussions that are open, science-based, and centered in health, safety, empathy, and inclusivity, are worth advocating for.

    I hope every Carl can feel comfortable enough to share their thoughts–and their names–on these kinds of important topics. It’s important to build communities where we can both agree and disagree . . . without feeling like we need to stay Anonymous.

    Thank you, Anonymous, for sharing your thoughts on this important issue, and know that you are not alone. Let us all continue to encourage more polite and open discussions on these important issues.