“We do not intend to police enforcement, but we expect all students to act responsibly and avoid indoor social gatherings,” interim provost David Kotz and executive vice president Rick Milis announced in an email this past Tuesday. This statement more or less sums up College leadership’s current response to the COVID-19 pandemic — absolving themselves of responsibility, while doing little to actually reduce transmission.
This is not to say we should return to strict lockdown policies. Facing the rise of the milder omicron variant in a population of highly vaccinated and boosted inviduals, we are better equipped to weather this latest wave than many other communities across the country. But the glaring contradiction between the stated goal of reducing transmission and the seeming willingness to let COVID-19 spread uncontrolled among students deserves to be called out — it is no basis for sound pandemic management.
The two biggest restrictions currently in place for campus life — grab-and-go dining and a ban on indoor social gatherings — are completely toothless and serve as little more than an annoyance. Yes, we get take-out meals, but then dozens, if not hundreds, of students eat in person indoors across campus. The College opened most of the dining halls on Monday to dine-in, apparently having recognized the pointlessness of their restrictions. Meanwhile, thanks to the “ban” on social gatherings, some clubs have cancelled their in-person meetings. Without enforcement, however, the broader policy seems unlikely to dissuade much in-person socializing — especially if the College will not enforce anything against Greek organizations.
While lacking in practicality, these measures achieve a superficial appearance of stringency. These policies also remind many of the lockdown measures of last year; if these policies were actually enforced, they would be highly restrictive yet effective ways to reduce community transmission. To some extent, the lack of actual enforcement of these stringent policies is welcome — smaller in-person gatherings really should be allowed at this point, given lower risks.
Yet, instead of striking a reasonable middle ground, the College has instead opted to publicize stringent rules but not actually carry them out. As of now, our pandemic rules are little more than excuses that College leadership can point to as cases rise, proof that at least something was attempted.
Some of the measures Dartmouth has implemented go backward from policies last term. Most glaringly, students must quarantine in their own dorms, virtually guaranteeing that roommates will be exposed. So while social gathering for all of campus is (supposedly) restricted, those who actually have confirmed cases of COVID-19 are barely stopped from spreading the virus.
The great tragedy is that by opting for the appearance of a strong response, the College has missed the chance to implement an actually effective strategy to minimize the risk of COVID-19. Dartmouth should adopt measures which offer the greatest probability of reducing transmission while being the least onerous to regular student life, and precisely target protections that can shield the most vulnerable members of the community.
More frequent testing stands out as an obvious measure — although case counts are higher than ever, most students are still only required to test once per week. With drop boxes across campus, it’s easier than ever to test. Why not increase testing to two times per week, or even three, as colleges such as Harvard University and Colby College have done?
Some of the College’s moves — such as mandating boosters — are likely highly impactful, given the power of the booster shot to raise antibody levels. And the College’s decision to recommend “medical-grade” masks and even provide some to students testing at West Gym was a good one, though the masks could be more centrally available. But these policies have been the exception, not the rule.
In the end, this latest wave shall pass, perhaps sooner than many of us think. Several models show U.S. COVID-19 cases peaking around mid-January. Meanwhile, while hospitals are facing crippling worker shortages and rising numbers of patients, the majority of patients are less sick than in prior waves. Some are even in the hospital for other reasons but also happen to test positive for COVID-19. If these national trends hold in Hanover, we might just ride this wave out.
But it didn’t have to be this stressful for so many in our community. Dartmouth has prioritized harsh-sounding policies which do little to stop transmission, when instead, low-cost, high-impact solutions could stand to make a difference. By luck of the genetic dice, the omicron variant presents significantly less risk of severe disease, especially among the vaccinated. We might not have been so fortunate if some other, more severe variant arose. What should trouble all of us is that our leadership has embraced policies which serve merely to deflect blame, rather than protect the community they serve.