Allen: Falling Off the Tightrope

Dartmouth’s incompetent COVID-19 response is threatening the health of the whole community.

by Spencer Allen | 1/27/22 4:00am

At the end of fall term, my grandma — my biggest supporter in my journey to Dartmouth — died from complications of COVID-19. In the midst of finals, I scrambled to leave campus early and fly to Missouri for her funeral. While I was there — in a county with a 25% vaccination rate and what I saw to be a low masking rate — I found a newfound appreciation for Dartmouth, a place that took COVID-19 seriously and consistently sought to combat the virus’ spread.

This term, however, that pride has shifted to outrage as the College has, effectively, decided to ignore COVID-19: Over 3,500 tests have come back positive in the past three weeks. Gone are the days when Dartmouth’s approach could be labeled as COVID-cautious; today, the College’s approach has shifted toward COVID-chaotic, with community members fending for themselves to keep from getting sick. This is no way to govern a campus. For the sake of the whole community, the College must recommit to taking COVID-19 seriously and enact sensible measures to protect everyone on campus.

Dartmouth’s COVID-19 response this term has consisted of nothing more than issuing a patchwork of flimsy recommendations that do little to hinder the virus’ spread. Among them, isolation housing is limited to only those immunocompromised students whose roommates test positive. Forcing this level of close contact encourages the virus to jump from one COVID-19-positive student to a COVID-19-free roommate. In addition, indoor social gatherings are allowed — after a brief hiatus at the start of the term — provided that students wear masks and gatherings “do not feature food and drink.” This stipulation is highly unrealistic: Without enforcing this measure — as interim provost David Kotz and executive vice president Rick Mills have announced they will not do — tightly packed basements in Greek houses will continue to be filled with alcohol and maskless faces, as they are every term. 

In justifying the unprecedented spread of COVID-19 on campus, Kotz and Mills claimed to be guiding Dartmouth in a way that supports students’ mental health. After last year — when the students’ mental health plummeted and three first-year students died by suicide — many students seem to view this approach as a welcome relief.

But, whose mental health are these policies helping? Certainly it hasn’t helped the hundreds, if not thousands, of positive students who have spent time in isolation to attempt to limit spread of the virus. Isolating hordes of students sounds eerily similar to the many quarantines students underwent last year, which earned firm rebukes from students due to negative impacts on mental health. What’s more, there are countless students — myself included — who are healthy and vaccinated but, because they lost someone to COVID-19, are shackled with fear of getting the virus. For me, knowing that the College is doing nothing to prevent the spread of the virus that took my grandma’s life is a slap in the face. Dartmouth is not truly protecting the mental health of its students this term; instead, the administration is only co-opting “mental health” as a buzzword to make political gains among the student body.

In terms of physical health, by treating COVID-19 as endemic — the strategy Kotz and Mills explicitly announced in The Dartmouth and emails sent to students — the College is blatantly ignoring public health advice, with the apparent goal of avoiding enacting policies aimed at stopping the spread of the virus. That’s not to say that COVID-19 will not eventually become endemic; the scientific consensus on that has been quite clear. However, public health experts in the Upper Valley and beyond have cautioned against reclassifying COVID-19 as endemic right this second, as the hypervirulent omicron variant strains hospitals across the country, including those right in our own backyard.

As an argument for treating COVID-19 as endemic on campus, some — like columnist Tanner Jones ’22 — have pointed out that college students are at a very low risk of hospitalization. That’s true — at the population level. But, who all constitutes this group? There are, of course, many healthy students who are also fully vaccinated. However, there are also immunocompromised students who face greater odds of serious illness or death from COVID-19. Let’s also consider “long COVID” — symptoms such as exhaustion, brain fog and breathlessness linger in 7%-18% of people who have recovered from a previous COVID-19 infection. Vaccination appears to only halve the risk of long COVID — if it has any effect at all. The benefits of “getting COVID-19 over with” may appear attractive now, but will COVID-19 be worth it several months from now when hundreds of students could face long-term consequences?

All of this is not to say that the College should return to the days of fall 2020, when students “disappearing” was a normal part of our vernacular. And fortunately for the entire country, omicron — knock on wood — appears to be calming down. But we are not back quite yet to conditions before March 2020, either. This term, Dartmouth made the reckless choice to abandon its responsibility to protect the physical and mental health of all students; in other words, it purposefully lost its balance on the tightrope, hurdling all of campus to the ground. As the College sought to ignore the pandemic, Dartmouth haplessly bungled the wellbeing of its student body. If we continue to cast aside the lingering threat of the virus for vulnerable students,  we put the health of the entire Dartmouth community in serious danger.

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