Allen: Mask for the Future
Students must follow Dartmouth’s mask mandate to protect the community from COVID-19.
Last week, the Hanover Selectboard voted to reinstate its indoor mask mandate, citing recent spikes in local COVID-19 cases as the Delta variant of the virus spreads nationally. The following day, Dartmouth announced that it would also reinstate indoor masking. These decisions seem decidedly unpopular among students, as evidenced by student sentiments seen in several pieces published in The Dartmouth last Friday.
Returning to a mask mandate feels like a step backwards after over a month of being mask-free on campus. However, the calculus surrounding the pandemic has changed dramatically in recent weeks; most alarmingly, there is new evidence that the Delta variant is capable of starting outbreaks even in highly-vaccinated communities. Despite their frustrations, students must follow the mask mandate — both to protect the community and subvert the need for harsher policies. If the mandate is ignored, students risk further delaying the College’s return to normal.
First, it is important to note that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently updated its mask guidance for fully vaccinated people. This new guidance says that, in areas of substantial or high COVID-19 transmission — in other words, in areas with 50 new cases per 100 thousand residents — masks should be worn by everyone, regardless of vaccination status. This updated CDC recommendation reflects new data showing that the Delta variant is more transmissible by vaccinated people than other variants.
Despite the abruptness of the town and College’s decisions, the decision to reinstate indoor mask mandates are backed by this new guidance. According to CDC guidelines, Grafton County has seen enough transmission in recent weeks to become a “substantial” spread county; it has held that status for the last week. We have also seen “high” spread in the Dartmouth bubble: Four cases of COVID-19 were recently diagnosed among 2,422 on-campus students, putting us at 165 cases per 100,000 students. While Hanover and Dartmouth both appeared to jump the gun with announcing their mandates, it is clear that local community transmission is high enough to warrant an indoor mask mandate.
It is true that, even if a vaccinated person is infected by COVID-19, they are far less likely to face serious illness or death than an unvaccinated person. In the face of this, some students have argued that there is less need to wear masks if few people will face serious outcomes.
That said, protecting oneself from serious illness or death has never been the main goal of masking. Instead, we all wore masks because of the immense power universal masking has. A CDC study from February showed that the spread of COVID-19 between two people can be cut by at least 84% if both are masked. Masks are also an important tool to stop the spread of the virus — even if someone feels well — since it is possible to transmit the virus before an infected person shows symptoms. It is true that vaccines provide similar protection against the virus compared to universal masking, but combining strategies can certainly enhance protection even further.
It is also vital to recognize the vulnerable members of our community who are still at risk of infection. 6% of the on-campus community is still unvaccinated, be it for a medical reason, a religious exemption or because they have not yet finished their vaccination sequence. What’s more, there are some in the 94% of vaccinated community members for whom the vaccine does not provide the same immune response because of medical conditions. We also interact with many unvaccinated and high-risk people outside Dartmouth, including older adults, immunocompromised people and children under 12 years old who are not eligible for a vaccine. Adhering to local mask mandates protects all of these people from infection and keeps the Upper Valley safe.
In lieu of a mask mandate, students have called for the College to increase the frequency of surveillance testing and to close campus buildings to the public. I agree that the current once-a-month testing regime cannot adequately detect COVID-19 in the community; we ought to return to at least weekly testing. That said, testing must complement — not replace — a mask mandate, since someone can spread the virus before they test positive or show symptoms. Likewise, restricting campus access does prevent COVID-19 from entering the community. That said, students are currently free to travel outside the Upper Valley, increasing the chances that a student brings the Delta variant from outside. A mask is a necessary tool to prevent transmission while students are still able to travel to areas with higher transmission rates.
Indoor masking is also one of the most mild yet effective preventative strategies the College can enforce. Last week, Natalie Dokken ’23 argued that the mask mandate must not serve as a gateway for Dartmouth to enforce “draconian” COVID-19 policies, like those we saw last fall. Dokken is right that the next set of COVID-19 restrictions the College could implement — social distancing and event gathering limits, among others — will be stricter than the mask mandate. However, stringent restrictions will not come about because of some hidden agenda; interim provost David Kotz even said that Dartmouth is not looking to do so at this time. Instead, these restrictions will come about if students ignore the mask mandate — as any walkthrough Baker-Berry Library will show — and COVID-19 spreads on campus as a result.
I say this recognizing that the odds of a vaccinated person getting COVID-19 are slim. However, those odds are not zero, and getting COVID-19 means risking spreading the virus to those who might face worse outcomes. We currently find ourselves in an incredibly fragile point in the pandemic; our actions right now will have lasting consequences on how the next year will look. Students can choose not to mask and risk increasing case counts on campus, which would justifiably usher in new COVID-19 restrictions. Or, students can take the small step of continuing to wear masks until community transmission is better controlled. Masks continue to be vitally important. I hope all students recognize that and take up masking once again.