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Moment to ignore, cowardice to act

| Thursday, September 23, 2021

Within the past week, a story, an editorial and a letter in The Observer have revealed egregious incidents involving students being denied tests for COVID-19 by the University. I applaud these students, and The Observer, for bringing this information to light.

Nearly two years into this pandemic, it is clear that testing and isolation is a cornerstone of controlling COVID-19. By only testing individuals with three symptoms, the University is allowing a portion of the symptomatic individuals who it refuses to test to pose a risk of transmitting SARS-CoV-2 to others on campus. The CDC lists at least eleven, rather than three, symptoms as being commonly associated with COVID-19, recommending that anyone with those symptoms get tested, regardless of vaccination status. How many students with one of the eight or more symptoms not on the University’s list were sitting in your class today?

Although it is laudable that such a high proportion of students, faculty, and staff are vaccinated, breakthrough infections do occur. That is especially true now that the delta variant is responsible for nearly all SARS-CoV-2 infections in the United States. Moreover, investigations of outbreaks in Provincetown, Massachusetts and elsewhere have demonstrated that breakthrough infections do more than just light up as positive on a test. Their infectiousness often equals that of unvaccinated individuals, resulting in onward spread of SARS-CoV-2.

Last year, the University built an impressive capability for in-house saliva testing that played an important role in controlling transmission. I led an analysis of data from that facility that showed that its tests are highly accurate, possibly even more so than tests at a commercial facility. That analysis likewise showed that the rapid tests that the University uses perform well, especially given how quickly they provide results. Now, most of that testing capability sits unutilized. In addition to expanding testing to individuals with a wider range of symptoms, the University should mobilize its capacity to offer regular testing of asymptomatic individuals to screen for infections, as it did last year. That would offer everyone important peace of mind. Beyond that, doing so could provide data to demonstrate how effective Notre Dame’s vaccination requirement has been. We cannot know that without appropriate data, which we currently do not have.

University spokesman Dennis Brown assured us that “the medical professionals in University Health Services” are referring individuals for testing in an appropriate manner. What that fails to recognize is that controlling the spread of a virus is not a medical issue. It is a public health issue. So too is the fact that the University’s refusal to test its own people is overburdening testing capacity in the surrounding community. Furthermore, a strictly medical view of these issues ignores the risk that the University’s policies pose to those of us with vulnerable family members.

As stated well by Mary Galvin, the former dean of the College of Science, “To have the moral voice Notre Dame needs to have for this world to be a force for good, it also has to have an exceptionally strong technical voice.” On the issue of COVID-19 testing, Notre Dame is speaking with neither its moral nor its technical voice. Meanwhile, the actions of its peer institutions are being informed by science and exhibiting compassion. Choosing to ignore COVID-19 and being too cowardly to confront it is a major step backwards in the University’s pursuit to be a force for good.

Alex Perkins

associate professor of biological sciences

Sept. 21

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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