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Not tHERE yet

| Friday, September 17, 2021

We all want this pandemic to be over.

We all want to return to normal and experience a regular school year, and we’re so close: Notre Dame has a vaccination rate of 96% and Saint Mary’s is close behind with 91%. Those figures make our campuses two of the safest places in the country, with higher vaccination rates than all 50 states. Most Holy Cross students are vaccinated as well.

But we’re not out of the woods just yet.

Despite this semester’s lack of HERE signage, surveillance testing or school-wide mask mandates, we are not back to pre-pandemic times, and that’s a reality we need to confront. What’s more, we need University leadership to be more communicative about the state of the virus on our campus. As much as it might seem that the worst in the tri-campus is behind us, the pandemic cannot simply be wished away. Insisting on it will only drag out this health crisis for longer.

And, despite evidence of breakthrough cases in fully vaccinated individuals and a rise in cases in St. Joseph County, the University is only updating its COVID-19 dashboard once a week. While we appreciate this communication, weekly updates do not suffice. Last year, the dashboard was updated every day at noon, and while Notre Dame’s vaccination rate is high, it does not justify a decrease in transparency. Weekly updates diminish students’ awareness of case numbers, and it muddles our understanding of the rate at which the virus is spreading on the Notre Dame campus.

This is especially concerning considering the potential aftermath of home football games — if we were to experience a spike in cases after thousands of visitors attended the Toledo game on campus, we would not be aware of the spike until the dashboard was updated 9 days later, due to the virus’s incubation period of 2-14 days. Given the tight-knit nature of our tri-campus community, any possible spikes on the Notre Dame campus concern the health and safety of our community at large.

These infrequent dashboard updates aren’t due to decreased demand or negligible testing numbers — University Health Services still receives up to 20 calls an hour with requests for COVID tests from students experiencing secondary symptoms and performs from 30 to 40 tests every day for students with primary symptoms, according to University Health Services director Ed Junkins.

Furthermore, none of our three schools is offering an overarching option to attend classes virtually like they did last year. While dual-mode instruction was undoubtedly difficult for professors and students to adapt to, this decision alienates those students who feel ill or who are worried about having been exposed to COVID, as well as those in quarantine or isolation. This is not to discount those professors who are flexible with their classes and provide Zoom links to any student who requests one. We appreciate having the possibility of attending classes online when we’re worried for our health and that of others.

Rather, this is a call to our administrators to recognize that relying on individual professors to provide a safety net of dual-mode instruction is not conducive to student well-being. The pressure to attend class in person, in spite of any illness, heavily weighs on those feeling unwell; it forces one to choose between falling behind in their studies or potentially infecting their peers. As much as students appreciate the benefits of in-person instruction, these policies fail to account for a new dimension of anxiety that emerges when classmates are coughing or sneezing without a mask. Whether it be a cold or COVID, it is impossible for students to determine the health of those sitting around them, and an honor code for mask-wearing is simply unenforceable.

While these issues could be more effectively controlled with the help of easy access to COVID testing on campus and clear guidelines about contact tracing, it’s become clear that this isn’t the situation on campus. Many students have become sick with the so-called “freshman flu” that seems to occur every fall. Some of these students have no reason to believe they might have COVID but want to be tested as a safety precaution. However, some students are being denied testing by the University Testing Center and are being forced to seek off-campus testing options. Last year, students had to get tested weekly, but now it seems like there are not enough tests to go around for those who are worried about infecting others.

Even if symptomatic testing were more easily accessible, it would do nothing to mitigate the fear of asymptomatic spread. As much as weekly surveillance testing could be inconvenient or uncomfortable, the process provided a peace of mind that one was not unknowingly carrying the virus. Now that testing at Notre Dame is only available to those who demonstrate a select set of symptoms, students with secondary symptoms are instructed to wait and see if they recover or if their symptoms worsen — all the while hoping that they aren’t exposing friends, roommates, classmates or instructors to COVID.

While we implore the tri-campus administrations, especially Notre Dame, to reconsider their current procedures, there are still ways for students to keep our campus safe. If you are denied a symptomatic test, there is free COVID testing available at various off-campus locations, including Walgreens, CVS and Walmart. If you are ill and cannot schedule a test before class, communicate with your professors and wear a mask in person if an online option is not available. 

The longer the pandemic endures, the more tempting it becomes to grow apathetic — to throw up our hands in defeat and return to normal. But as the Delta variant continues to surge, giving up now would be a betrayal of all the progress we have made. If 19 long months have taught us anything, it is that the pandemic is not something we can race through. It is something we must overcome, step by step, one small victory after another. The vaccine was a huge one, but without clear, comprehensive and enforceable policies, we’re just waving a white flag.

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