As the highly infectious delta variant continues to ravage the United States and cases of the novel mu variant begin to rise, many Vassar community members have expressed increasing concern about the potential spread of COVID-19 on campus (NBC Chicago, “Mu, Delta, Lambda: What We Know So Far About the Most Recent COVID Variants,” 09.07.2021). In response to these anxieties, Eleanor Massengill ’24 launched a petition that calls on the administration to institute regular COVID-19 testing on campus. As of the writing of this article, 331 students have signed the petition.
As the policy stands now, the College provides regular testing only for unvaccinated students and employees (Vassar College, “Protocols for the Fall,” 07.28.2021). According to the VassarTogether COVID-19 Dashboard, about five percent of all students and employees on campus are unvaccinated (Vassar College, “COVID-19 Dashboard,” 09.14.2021). Symptomatic individuals, treated as persons under investigation (PUIs) and close contacts of positive cases can also receive a COVID-19 test by contacting Health Services. PUIs are immediately isolated, but vaccinated close contacts are not unless they too are symptomatic. Typically, they are just advised to take additional precautions (Vassar College, “FAQ on Contact Tracing and Information about Close Contacts,” 09.10.2021). The fear is that without mandatory testing, symptomatic individuals and close contacts may not have incentive to get swabbed.
Massengill criticized the current policy: “I think it is a careless and risky decision to not have regular testing on campus.”
Massengill posited that regular testing would help ensure the welfare of unvaccinated community members and staff members’ children who are currently ineligible to receive a vaccine. They stated, “With delta being a particularly nasty variant we should be getting regularly tested for those who are unvaccinated.”
For students on campus, regular COVID testing would also provide a sense of security as they go about their daily activities. When asked why she had signed the petition, Sophia Corwin ’23 explained, “I feel like testing allows us to have the knowledge of whether or not COVID is on campus because, at the moment, we really have no way of knowing that.” She continued, “If you are aware of the COVID situation on campus, then you can make decisions for yourself…in terms of what you feel comfortable doing … That is just really an important part of body autonomy.”
When asked whether or not testing protocols are predicted to change, President Elizabeth Bradley stated that the College will continue acting in accordance with CDC guidelines, which does not recommend that asymptomatic, vaccinated people be tested regularly (Centers for Disease Control, “Testing for COVID-19,” 08.02.2021).
In a written correspondence with The Miscellany News, Bradley wrote, “It is very important to us to hear feedback like this, and I can understand that people may have strong views on this issue. Nevertheless, the safest approach for the campus is to align with the CDC guidance, and this will continue to be our approach.” She proceeded to write, “It is understandable that people have questions and feel uncertain about COVID-19. We should remind ourselves of the science, which tells us that, in communities with very high vaccination rates as we have, the prevalence of COVID-19 is expected to be low.”
In a recent study released by the CDC, experts found that unvaccinated people are five times more likely to become infected and more than 10 times more likely to be hospitalized or die from COVID-19 (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Monitoring Incidence of COVID-19 Cases, Hospitalizations, and Deaths, by Vaccination Status — 13 U.S. Jurisdictions, April 4–July 17, 2021,” 09.10.2021).
Massengill also cited the emergence of the new mu variant in conjunction with the delta strain as another source of concern. “[B]reakthrough infections are more likely now than ever,” they said.
Researchers predicted if vaccines are 90 percent effective, then 10 percent of fully vaccinated individuals would account for the total number of COVID cases between June 20 and July 17. In reality, they found that fully-vaccinated individuals represented 18 percent of cases, which suggests vaccine efficacy is closer to 80 percent (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Monitoring Incidence of COVID-19 Cases, Hospitalizations, and Deaths, by Vaccination Status — 13 U.S. Jurisdictions, April 4–July 17, 2021,” 09.10.2021). The rise of the new mu variant has compounded concerns over vaccine efficacy. Approximately 2,000 cases of the mu variant have been detected across the US, and some preliminary research suggests that it may be resistant to coronavirus vaccines, but such findings require further studies for confirmation (World Health Organization, “COVID-19 Weekly Epidemiological Update,” 08.31.2021). During a recent press briefing, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Dr. Anthony Fauci stated that although the government is closely monitoring the mu situation, the variant is not nearly as dominant as the delta version (The Washington Post, “Here’s what we know about the mu variant,” 09.03.2021).
As Massengill looks towards the future, they hope that the petition is able to reach more people and gather between 400 to 500 signatures before presenting it to the Vassar administration. As a final note, Massengill stated, “This is just so important. I want everyone to feel that their health and safety matters. It is Vassar’s job to prioritize student health and safety and the first step is reinstating regular COVID testing.”