As the U.S. experiences a wave of new COVID-19 cases, the University’s COVID-19 tracker also reports numbers rivaling those last spring. As of Jan. 13, there were 118 individualized hospitalized for COVID-19 at U.Va. Health and 409 active cases of the virus in the University community. These trends mirror statistics throughout the Commonwealth — Virginia has surpassed 18,000 new daily cases as recently as Jan. 15. — a new peak for the state. While none of these active hospitalizations are students, we must recognize that students can still contract and spread the virus, which harms those who are more vulnerable in the surrounding community.
The University, however, seems to believe that these numbers do not represent a danger to the community. A recent email from the University informed students that there is a lack of isolation space and failed to reinstate prevalence testing, though students are still required to attend classes in-person. Moreover, the University failed to institute hybrid class options for immunocompromised students or those with health conditions. These plans display a complete lack of empathy for student health and recklessly endanger the public — the University’s failure to reinstate prevalence testing and provide sufficient isolation and quarantine areas will only lead to increased caseloads, thereby threatening the health of students and the surrounding community.
While many universities chose to move their courses online for temporary periods of time, the University actively chose to mandate in-person courses without virtual options, unless approved for faculty concerns. Although the virus is always changing, we now know the dangerous transmissibility of the omicron variant. The University must make infrastructural changes to protect those in the University and surrounding communities — while vaccines may result in more mild symptoms for students, faculty and staff, vaccines do not prevent these individuals from contracting and spreading the virus to individuals in the wider community for whom symptoms won’t necessarily be as mild. In the Blue Ridge Health District, just 65.7 percent of individuals are “fully vaccinated,” meaning they have received two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, or one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Only 35.2 percent have received the booster shot as of Jan. 18. Thus, those in the surrounding community are more likely to contract the virus if exposed and more likely to face more severe symptoms.
The University’s email informs students that weekly prevalence testing will not be reinstated and even advises on-Grounds students who test positive for COVID-19 to consider traveling home if they can do so safely and as long as they do not live with anyone at high risk for more serious symptoms. To protect the surrounding community, the University must reinstate weekly prevalence testing to more effectively contain major outbreaks as was required last year. In addition, the University must also provide enough quarantine and isolation space — at least for on-Grounds students — so that those who contract the virus are encouraged to stay in Charlottesville rather than risk additional spreading by traveling back home. The University cannot continue to limit quarantine and isolation areas, but must amplify their presence to meet the omicron variant’s demands. Although the University encourages students to travel home, there are still no virtual class options or requirements for professors to accommodate students quarantining or isolating. This lack of preparation with respect to prevalence testing and quarantine space demonstrates a complete disregard for the safety of all those in the University community.
This lack of mandatory prevalence testing introduces concern over a lack of data which prevents both the University and its community members from making informed decisions. Immunocompromised students and students with health conditions will not be able to make responsible decisions for their own health. Simply accepting that many members of the University community will contract the virus is selfish and disrespectful to those who are at risk of worsened COVID-19 symptoms. Students have voiced concern about the University’s disregard for students with chronic conditions. In particular, older adults and those with underlying conditions — weakened immune systems, asthma and mental health conditions, for example — are all at high risk for severe COVID-19 infections. It is time the University showed some semblance of care for those in the community who are not young and able-bodied.
New quarantine guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention should only further encourage the University to reinstitute weekly prevalence testing. Under current CDC guidelines — which have been adopted by the University — quarantine is no longer recommended in all cases of exposure. Rather, as long as individuals are vaccinated, they are advised to wear a mask for 10 days, watch for symptoms and get tested five days after exposure. This system requires students to identify exposures and take it upon themselves to get tested. However, since courses are not offered virtually, such a decision forces students to choose between public health and academic success. Students must also shoulder the burden of scheduling themselves for a COVID-19 test. Currently asymptomatic testing is only available at two locations, both of which are indoor with inadequate space for social distancing. Rather than requiring students to sacrifice their academics and reschedule their days to get tested — in a small room of a basement that is thoroughly insufficient to handle the anticipated amount of COVID-19 exposures — the University must take action. Virtual classes must be made optional. In addition, safe outdoor prevalence testing with more scheduling flexibility must be reinstated — particularly considering that students, faculty and staff all largely rely on the University for affordable tests.
The University’s guidelines not only jeopardize the safety of University students and their families, but also those in the surrounding community. Indeed, many students are young and vaccinated — and thus will likely not have severe symptoms. However, the population outside of the University is much more diverse — made up of the elderly, those too young to be vaccinated and those more likely to have existing health conditions. High numbers of COVID-19 cases at the University threaten the safety of those who live and work around Grounds. For the safety of those in the Charlottesville community, increasing COVID-19 cases is unacceptable.
University policies inform decisions throughout the community, therein making it crucial to consider the consequences of this inaction as shown by the Inter-Fraternity Council and Inter-Sorority Council. The students’ decisions to proceed with a split virtual and in-person recruitment — likely to further exacerbate the rising COVID-19 cases. Simply put, the University’s updated COVID-19 policies are negligent — the plans lack sufficient planning to prepare for the expected increase in cases. While the University is adamant that we will be safe, they are not accounting for those with preexisting health conditions or the surrounding community. Thus, we must identify this policy as one of intentional ignorance. The University’s policies are insufficient. Public health requires reinstating prevalence testing and virtual class options. Students and administration alike must recognize that although we all want a semester with less restrictions, risking public health is too high of a cost. Indeed, some have already begun taking action through a student-led petition and U.Va. Mutual Aid fundraiser. Nevertheless, the University’s priorities thus far have been made clear — they value their commitment to in-person academic instruction over public health.
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