Not Just the Flu: Dartmouth’s High-Risk Population and the Pandemic

Students with high-risk conditions share how they are navigating campus during the pandemic.

by Jayanth Uppaluri | 2/16/22 2:25am

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A notable event of this winter term was Dartmouth’s decision to begin treating COVID-19 as an endemic disease rather than a pandemic one. In comparison to many peer institutions, classes, clubs and sports at Dartmouth have proceeded relatively unchanged, and the reaction of the student body seems to have been largely positive, in no small part due to the high vaccination rates and low risk to the young adult population.

Unfortunately, there are still quite a few students and faculty with high-risk conditions that render them more susceptible to the virus, even with the vaccines. Life for them, which was already complicated during the last few Dartmouth quarters, got even more complicated as case counts and the positivity rate skyrocketed. I would know, as I have a high-risk condition of my own.

Since coming to campus in the fall of 2020, I’ve had to view the pandemic in a different light than other Dartmouth students because it’s necessary for my own health. Just this term, I avoided eating dinners with friends until week four and events with large groups until recently, something that has been quite hard for an extrovert such as myself.

Kate ’25, who requested her last name be withheld for medical privacy reasons, has also been dealing with these concerns as an immunocompromised student, and it has left her feeling as though she has “missed out on some things” that her peers have been able to experience.

“I have never been in a frat basement, just because that’s not safe for me right now,” she explained. “Sporting events and other places where people aren’t consistently wearing masks — for most people that’s entirely fine, but it’s a situation that I can’t put myself in.” 

She also noted the lack of new social interactions that comes with being immunocompromised, with her main social circle made up of only “a few people that [she] knows, which is a little bit of an adjustment.”

Emily Sun ’23 is another immunocompromised student who had her college experience altered due to the pandemic, having done nearly her entire sophomore year from California rather than from Hanover.  

“I was offered housing in the fall [of 2020] and winter [of 2021], and didn’t take it because of the potential risks,” Sun said. 

Sun added that, even with the precautions she took in the beginning of the winter term, she still tested positive for COVID-19 in the middle of this term, a fact that was “jarring” after the emotional toll of being isolated for nearly a year to avoid catching it.

Kate does not think that the decision to treat COVID-19 as endemic was the wrong one. Rather, she really wishes that the administration took a different approach in how they communicated the change in COVID-19 policy.

“I wish that there would have been a bit more consideration in acknowledging how people’s physical health still can be impacted with COVID,” Kate said. “I don’t think it would change how people were acting, but it would change my feelings about how the school has dealt with this.”

Sun echoed this criticism, specifically talking about the decision to re-open Dartmouth Dining Services locations for indoor dining when Dartmouth had a positivity rate of over 10%, which may have given some students a false sense of security. Sun felt that this decision was made “arbitrarily.”

“It seemed like it was pulled out of thin air,” Sun said. “Not that I disagreed with the decision, but I wish I understood why.”

Geisel School of Medicine dean Duane Compton serves as the head of the scientific advisory group, which is made up of scientists from different fields who advise provost David Kotz and executive vice president Rick Mills on COVID-19 policy. He explained that the COVID-19 policy changes were made while considering a wide variety of factors.

“The conversations are always trying to understand the impact of this for everyone on campus,” Compton said. “Everyone is always trying to consider everyone on campus.”

He also noted that the vaccines were incredibly effective at reducing transmission and severe disease, and with the “highly, highly vaccinated population locally,” we can talk about COVID-19, locally, as endemic. This means that students with high-risk conditions for COVID-19 have to treat the disease as they would treat any endemic disease, like influenza.

However, while recognizing the freedom that Dartmouth students should have, Compton also made sure to stress the important role that all Dartmouth students play in combating the pandemic for their peers and professors who have high-risk conditions.

“Each person has the right to make their own decisions on how they wish to conduct themselves, but I would like for individuals to recognize that their actions have consequences on others,” Compton said. “I would never want to be an individual who inadvertently infects someone else, and so I wear a mask and take appropriate precautions. I would hope that other people accept that responsibility.”

Sun and Kate agreed that the mask mandate has been a welcome policy in keeping high-risk students safe, as well as the efforts to distribute high quality KN95 masks to all students. These initiatives have allowed immunocompromised and high-risk students to experience in-person classes with lessened risk, keeping their access to one of the most critical parts of the Dartmouth experience.

Despite the difficulties of pandemic-era Dartmouth for us, we all agreed that the Dartmouth experience has still been fulfilling for us, and that staying at home was not better than the alternative. From the outdoor dinners I’ve had with close friends to Kate’s exploration of the varied outdoor activities from the DOC, we’ve all found ways to keep ourselves sane in the madness that was this term. For as many people who don’t understand the risks that some students are experiencing, there are just as many who are willing to take the appropriate precautions to keep us all safe.

That last point is key to ensuring a safe Dartmouth experience for all. When asked about the point that they wanted to make to their Dartmouth peers, Sun and Kate agreed that they wanted to emphasize the diversity of risk within the Dartmouth community and how other students could help to mitigate that. When the community works together, we can reduce the risk for all and make a return to the campus environment that they —and I — agree is the reason we are all here.

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