The summer semester has breezed by in terms of COVID-19 mitigation. For the most part, life on campus this summer has been unaffected by the pandemic, despite the fact that, for the rest of the world, the pandemic never ended. The seemingly post-COVID-19 dreamland of Oberlin was brought back to reality last week, when the College announced the return to indoor masking in response to updated Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and rising cases in Lorain County. While wearing masks in our classes and around our friends is disappointing, we understood exactly why this is necessary: cases continue to climb and the lack of knowledge about the Delta variant adds a level of uncertainty that can only be mitigated by extra precautions.
For Oberlin, it has been an undeniably successful year of COVID-19 management. Due to the College’s ObieSafe guidelines, we’ve had relatively few cases, even while the rest of the country experienced rising caseloads. We trusted and commended the College’s leadership for getting us through this safely, knowing that ObieSafe guidelines continued to comply with CDC guidelines. Only last week it seemed that the College’s decision-making process favored the most cautious practices approved by the CDC. So imagine our surprise when, this week, administrators decided to stray from that path.
The newest recommendation from the College states that if you are vaccinated and you become exposed to COVID-19 or have been identified through contact tracing, the College is now discouraging you from getting tested — unless you are symptomatic. Campus Health Coordinator Katie Gravens said to the Review this week, “We will test people when testing is warranted, and we discourage people from going out and getting tested [at other] places. … We don’t want people testing unnecessarily.”
The reasoning behind this, it seems, is that Oberlin’s COVID-19 team wants to minimize potential anxiety at a time when COVID-19 restrictions are loosening and allowing for a more “normal” college experience. Gravens said that the potential for a false positive result on a COVID-19 test could cause panic, and that there’s no need to test an asymptomatic vaccinated person at all, even if they were exposed to the virus.
We know that there has been some panic on this campus with regards to COVID-19; we’re not going to dispute that. Two weekends ago, the Oberlin Twitter bubble was rife with concern over students who attended Solstice after leaving campus for Lollapalooza — a large music festival in Chicago that has been linked to around 200 cases nationally at the time of publication — and anxiety charged the air. In the College’s revised masking policy, released just two days after Solstice, the College emphasized that the Solstice gathering was not an added risk to Delta variant transmission.
Still, even though we agree with Gravens that there has been panic among students, we’re not sure that discouraging testing is the best way to avoid this anxiety. The College is right that false positives can occur, especially with rapid tests, and that false positives can create undue anxiety. But the sense that we don’t know if there is COVID-19 on this campus — and if there is, how much — is also worrying to the Oberlin community. As much as vaccines mitigate transmission and the severity of sickness, it is possible for vaccinated individuals to pass on the disease. The idea that asymptomatic and low-symptom cases could be transmitting across campus at any moment, unbeknownst to us, is unsettling, especially when there are still members of our campus and community that are vulnerable to this disease.
The College says that this new recommendation is in line with public health guidelines, but there is some gray area there. While the Ohio Department of Health does, as of July 29, state that individuals who are exposed to COVID-19 do not have to quarantine or test unless they have symptoms, the CDC’s guidelines conflict with this. The official CDC guideline, as of July 27, is that vaccinated individuals undergo testing 3–5 days after exposure to someone infected with COVID-19.
If the safest, admittedly cautious, route is to receive testing — considering the risk is high enough for indoor masking — then the College should mandate regular testing, or at very least make optional testing easily accessible. If the College insists that our high vaccination rate ensures our safety then a legitimate accumulation of data would naturally reflect that fact, rather than sparking alarm. The College previously had weekly ObieSafe updates, setting a precedent for what this could look like, and, given that we’ve seen them create the infrastructure for mass testing, any decision to deny students the freedom to get tested makes little sense. At the same time it is clear the College is still concerned with the spread of the virus as they are requiring that all students be vaccinated within 45 days of non-emergency FDA announced approval.
We don’t believe that the College is making some unsafe, brash decision — we understand that, even with the uncertainty of the Delta variant, we are still at a very different and much safer place in COVID-19 than we were even a few months ago. At some point, we have to reassess the risks and continue with our regular lives. We don’t feel that we are in immediate danger because of the College’s recommendation; however, we disagree with the College on what is the best way to get a few hundred 20-year olds living together in a college town in Ohio to not panic.
We are grateful for how the College has handled COVID-19 so far, but the past couple of weeks have felt like a deviation from the high standard of transparency upheld by the College. When the College reinstated the mask mandate, the specifics of the guidelines were relatively unclear, especially for the first five days before the College released more extensive information. There is still work to be done in terms of providing clarity for students as we move forward.
In the meantime, as we iron out the kinks as a community, we hope that members of our community can have empathy for each other: students for students, students for administration, and administration for us. Each of us have different personal priorities and tolerance for risk. For some of us, vaccinations alone may not offer much solace.