For the duration of the pandemic, the Oberlin College community has maintained relatively low infection rates. However, the situation has changed in the last few weeks, marked especially by President Carmen Twillie Ambar’s Dec. 23 email to the community reporting 158 new positive cases.
In the COVID-19 update sent out on Dec. 30, President Ambar emphasized the importance of wearing masks, the vaccine booster requirement on campus, and the expansion of testing protocols. The administration often refers to CDC guidelines in its own COVID-19 policy and did so in the most recent ObieSafe email, which changed the isolation requirement from 10 days to five for students who test positive.
On Dec. 27, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed its guidelines for those who test positive for COVID-19, recommending that people isolate themselves for five days instead of 10. Their decision comes in light of an increased availability of vaccines and a decrease in the number of hospitalizations or deaths by disease. On day five, people can leave isolation if asymptomatic but are encouraged to follow strict mask use for the next five days. A negative COVID-19 test is not required to end isolation.
The new CDC isolation policy has been criticized for being a reinterpretation of old data, rather than being based on new findings, and for failing to include a recommendation that people test for COVID-19 at the end of their isolation period. Regardless of these criticisms, I believe the new policy’s biggest detriment is the timing and manner of communication. It seems untimely to cut the isolation period in half for positive COVID-19 patients while daily infection rates are reaching new records. At this point, more people are getting infected daily than they were a year ago, due in large part to the Omicron variant. It also seems irresponsible of the CDC to not recommend taking a test after the five-day isolation period. A large part of the battle against COVID-19 in the U.S. has been convincing Americans to follow the rapidly changing guidelines. I understand how difficult it must be to draft COVID-19 prevention policies when our understanding of COVID-19 is constantly changing — as the actual virus is evolving. However, the reasons behind these policies have to be communicated more clearly, or else they will leave people frustrated and distrustful of government health measures.
All of this brings us to the question: How should the Oberlin administration make decisions about ObieSafe protocols when certain national guidelines are subject to doubt and controversy? In my opinion, the Oberlin College administration should have waited before changing ObieSafe policies to see the impact of the change in quarantine and isolation times on infection rates. The Oberlin College administration and the CDC are in some ways motivated by different goals and variables, meaning their policies do not have to perfectly align. For Oberlin, the chief consideration should be the safety of students, faculty, and staff while upholding a high standard of education. The pursuit of these goals might require mandates beyond what the CDC is willing to recommend, but that shouldn’t stop Oberlin from making the best decisions for this community.
Another important consideration in this discussion is that comprehensive COVID-19 prevention policy is not predicated simply on isolation time but also on vaccine requirements, access to testing, and clear social distancing guidelines. Oberlin students unfortunately did not have easy access to COVID-19 tests this past fall, which most likely played a major role in the spread of infection. I believe that the Oberlin College community’s COVID-19 policies should focus on minimizing large gatherings of students and providing easy access to testing as opposed to quarantine duration, though the issue is still important.
In addition, on a more personal level, it is important for Obies to critically think about their own actions and the consequences of those actions. If you have symptoms, get tested and minimize contact with others as much as possible until you receive your results back. Furthermore, if you contract COVID-19 — or other contagious viruses like strep throat or the flu — share this information with people you have been in close contact with. We all have a personal stake in this issue, and we have the ability to take steps to protect ourselves and others.
Look here to learn more about Oberlin College’s current COVID-19 policies and here for the full CDC report from Dec. 27.