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The Dartmouth
February 21, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Jones: More Restrictive than a Blue State Nursing Home

The College’s COVID-19 restrictions deviate from most of the country and the WHO.

Over winterim, I had the opportunity to visit my grandmother’s nursing home. While I was encouraged to sanitize my hands and wear a mask, neither measure was required, given my vaccination status. Within the home, residents, caregivers and visitors carried on with mild caution but, generally speaking, operated with little regard for the global pandemic. Due to the nature of the omicron variant — which is significantly less likely to spread to the lungs than earlier variants  — the powerful immunity of a vaccinated population and the capacities of nearby medical facilities, this nursing home opted to loosen restrictions among the population most at-risk to COVID-19.

You can imagine my surprise when I returned to Dartmouth — a small and isolated community overwhelmingly populated by those least at risk for severe COVID-19 complications — and faced more stringent restrictions than most of the country has seen in over nine months. In my estimation, Dartmouth’s current COVID-19 regime deviates from both common sense and scientific consensus — ironic, at an institution of higher learning. I urge Dartmouth to reevaluate the data and pursue a science-based approach, following the example of most policymakers across the country.

To be clear, my grandma’s nursing home is not in some reactionary jurisdiction. She and I live in Minnesota: a state with a Democratic governor and the only state in the country to go blue in every single presidential election since 1976. Despite bouts of ideological possession, Minnesota prides itself on a long tradition of data-based decision making. No scandal has plagued our leaders in recent memory, no governors have been forced to resign or asked to recall. Generally speaking, the scientific truth, irrespective of political headwinds, drives policy. Given the reduced severity of omicron and the state’s high level of vaccinated persons, Minnesota’s policymakers did not follow some California and New York cities in reinstating many COVID-19 restrictions this winter. Instead, Gov. Tim Walz worked to make testing and vaccinations more accessible. While the result has been a comparatively higher proportion of positive cases than in Minnesota’s more restrictive peers, deaths remain lower than last winter’s peak and hospitals maintain sufficient capacities, even in ICUs. 

Dartmouth, with a population over one thousand times smaller than Minnesota, chooses the draconian approach, mirroring only a handful of the most far left-leaning municipalities in the entire nation. Many of these strict jurisdictions, for context, boast some of the largest municipal populations in the entire world — home to millions more vectors for viral transmission than all of New Hampshire and Vermont combined. Regardless, Dartmouth mandates masking at the gym and during class, enforces a five-day isolation period for all students who test positive and bars all school-sponsored in-person gatherings.

To justify stringent measures unseen in most of our nation’s biggest cities, Dartmouth points to a sharp rise in positive cases among students. Positive cases alone, in my estimation, is insufficient data to justify Dartmouth’s COVID-19 policies. Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the risk of a person between the ages of 18 and 25 dying either of or with COVID is 0.001%. Think about that: 0.001%. I cannot think of any comparable policies in history that call for such large-scale restrictions on normal life to avoid such an improbable risk. Moreover, as Johns Hopkins professor and surgeon Marty Makary points out, “all or nearly all of those deaths were in a very specific subgroup: unvaccinated people with a medical comorbidity.” For context, 98.7% of Dartmouth undergraduates are vaccinated — that’s a greater proportion than in every single state in America, not one of which enforces anything close to Dartmouth-level restrictions at the state level.

Perhaps then, Dartmouth’s restrictions are designed solely to protect the health of older members of the Dartmouth community — faculty and staff. Even with this possible justification, which is not the school’s official reasoning, Dartmoth’s restrictions remain unduly draconian. Per the schools own records, 96.4% of faculty and staff are vaccinated. Breakthrough hospitalizations and deaths remain exceedingly improbable in the era of omicron, Makary continues: “the risk of a fully vaccinated adult ending up in the hospital for COVID-19 was 1 in 26,000 for the week ending in November 27. Who was that one person? Not a college student.” For reference, this most recent data is from before the omicron spike which, as a reminder, is far less likely to enter the lungs than its delta predecessor.

And for those unfortunate breakthrough cases, only certain demographics disproportionately face the worst outcomes. According to the state of North Dakota’s very thorough COVID-19 dashboard, the average age of those dying of COVID-19 while vaccinated is over 80 years old in that state. In my mind, Dartmouth should thus be in the business of accommodating the small handful of those at high risk — maybe providing hyper-effective N65 masks or offering optional paid leave.

Sadly, even the most egregiously unscientific policies are entrenched at Dartmouth. For example, during intensive physical exercise, the World Health Organization contends that masks should not be worn. The WHO bases this guidance on recent scientific studies and concludes: “Even when you’re in an area of COVID-19 transmission, masks should not be worn during vigorous physical activity because of the risk of reducing your breathing capacity.” In our small and isolated rural community of predominantly twenty-somethings, the risks of COVID-19 are far less pronounced than to the WHO’s target audience — the entire global population.

Sadly, it remains unclear how a student might effectively challenge Dartmouth’s disregard of medical research. When I emailed College President Phil Hanlon about Dartmouth’s violation of the WHO’s guidance, he referred me to athletics director Peter Roby. And when I emailed Roby about Dartmouth’s violation of the WHO’s guidance, he did not respond. Unable to sway the policymakers, I attempted to persuade the enforcers. To my chagrin, each gym attendant thus far has only pointed me back to Roby. 

So, Roby, and maybe even Hanlon, if you happen to read this, I hope you might consider the WHO’s guidance in addition to the other research-based policies of countless state and municipal governments. In light of laws and guidances designed for millions or billions of people, I am perplexed that Dartmouth’s isolated community of overwhelmingly young people faces such draconian restrictions.

I am open, of course, to the possibility that I grossly misunderstand legitimate reasons for Dartmouth’s continued COVID-19 policies. But it appears to me that Dartmouth is lucky to have many structural advantages rendering it uniquely capable of fending off COVID-19. Why then do we face uniquely harsh restrictions?