Stress in college is a given, but Vassar’s lack of mandatory COVID-19 testing is stressing students out even more. This stress is not necessary. Testing works, it’s easy, and it can ease the anxiety of not knowing.
We need regular mandatory testing. The circumstances were different in the early fall of 2021 with the Delta variant. As part of its strategy, Vassar relied upon symptomatic, voluntary testing in addition to contact tracing and vaccine requirements. The number of positive student cases on campus remained under twenty cases, even with students traveling during October break. There was a more noticeable uptick towards the end of the semester, with an all-time high of 64 cases since COVID-19 began. This was our introduction to the Omicron variant.
Unfortunately, we are now facing a new era. The first confirmed case of the Omicron variant in the United States was in California on Dec. 1, 2021. By Jan. 9, 2022, New York state saw more than a 500 percent increase in cases from last year’s winter peak. According to The New York Times, the Omicron variant is two to three times more transmissible than the Delta variant. A Danish study published on Dec. 27, 2021, found that the Omicron variant has a 31 percent rate of infection within households; 98 percent of Vassar students live in a dorm or house on campus. Despite some similarities to prior COVID-19 variants, the Omicron variant is not hindered by immunity from prior COVID-19 infections, according to The New York Times. One dose of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine essentially has no protection against Omicron, and the vaccine from Pfizer-BioNTech only has a 33 percent effectiveness against infection by the Omicron variant as opposed to an 80 percent effectiveness against previous variants. While the Omicron variant is widely regarded as a mild form of COVID-19 for many, it is important to consider that the death toll statistics follow the case study data by 21 days, so more data has yet to be collected. And The New York Times states that it is still too early to know whether Omicron will lead to long COVID-19.
Vassar’s testing strategies differ markedly from our peer institutions. Some colleges and universities have strict post-arrival protocols. At Amherst College, students are required to take three tests per week for the first three weeks, followed by regular testing twice a week for the remainder of the semester. Similarly, Wesleyan University requires two tests per week and Middlebury College calls for one per week. Schools that have already been able to gather COVID-19 dashboard data have recorded shockingly high recent numbers. Dartmouth College, which requires weekly testing and has a similar vaccination rate to Vassar, has reported a 10.79 percent positivity rate in their first two weeks. They are only required to test once a week, and even with this testing policy, the number of positive cases remains high. How many cases are slipping through the cracks of schools that are not testing as regularly?
According to The Poughkeepsie Journal, COVID-19 test results are currently difficult to acquire in Dutchess County, which is a concern that Vassar, as a part of the community, should share with the people of the county. Moreover, the county’s positivity rate, posted on the Dutchess COVID-19 Dashboard, is 23.3 percent as of January 12, almost triple the rate at any time during the entirety of 2021. Even though Dutchess County COVID-19 rates are slowly beginning to decrease, Vassar should be a good neighbor and test its students, so as not to trigger an increase in cases once again. Living right next door to a community dealing with a lack of testing access and available results, according to The Poughkeepsie Journal, Vassar students should not be causing a COVID-19 surge that could be managed through testing. Instead of further limiting Vassar students’ travel by reinstating the bubble, Vassar could perhaps open a day of testing to community members once per week or so depending on demand.
Vassar’s testing approach this semester is on-demand and optional after one post-arrival test. By definition, optional testing is skewed towards lower-risk people. In other words, students who are more likely to avoid high-risk situations are naturally more concerned about the rapid spread of the Omicron variant. These students are the ones who are more likely to get tests and to calm their nerves. However, Vassar also has a large population of students who, frankly, are not as nervous about COVID-19 spreading throughout campus. These students are likely facing a higher risk of COVID-19, but are less likely to choose asymptomatic testing.
During winter break, Eleanor Massengill ’24 wrote a petition highlighting the need for mandatory regular testing. There were 215 signatures from current students, recent alum and concerned parents. When asked how students are faring with the current guidelines in place, Massengill said, “I’ve spoken with immunocompromised students who feel completely ignored and disregarded by the present return plan…It’s really difficult to focus on classes when you feel unsafe at your college.” They continued, “I think one of the biggest feelings I and many other students are feeling is just confusion…So many schools that we compare ourselves to have had weekly testing this whole time.” Massengill worries that petitions of this scale can be ignored by the Vassar administration because technically a majority of students have not signed it, but in this case, with 215 students publicly signing their names to demand regular testing, the administration should finally take note.
There is some discourse surrounding the idea of everyone getting infected with the Omicron variant so that we can all recover and our shared antibodies can protect us from future variants. However, there is no solid data to confirm this course of action, and we know that people with some disabilities and chronic medical conditions are at higher risk of complications. The current testing strategy—or lack thereof—feels inadequate, to say the least, for dorm-dwelling students who have no say in the matter. The people who make these rules for us live in their own houses, can cook meals and brush their teeth without strangers beside them. Dorm-dwelling students have no such option. Knowing that everyone in our hallways and friend groups are continuously being tested would allow students to lift their stresses from this one aspect of college life.
It’s critical for the College administration to consider both the physical and mental toll that has been affecting students during the pandemic. According to The American Psychological Association and the National Library of Medicine, the mental effects of COVID-19 have been recorded in multiple studies showing a 71 percent to 81 percent increase in stress for high school and college students in the US. There is a clear, accessible way for Vassar students to reduce such stress, at the cost of a swab up our noses (or spitting in a tube) twice a week for at least the first month or two. In this incredible college that we chose to spend four years of our lives, having the chance to work with these wonderful professors and pen dozens of pages of challenging papers, we should not feel unsafe. Vassar should stay test-optional for the SATs, not COVID-19.