COVID protocol removal sparks uncertainty

On May 11, six days after Lewis & Clark’s spring semester ended, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) ended the Federal COVID-19 Public Health Emergency (PHE) declaration. Revoking critical funding and resources after over three years of living under its protection may seem inconsequential in a culture where precautions have all but gone out the window, but the ramifications reverberate from Washington D.C. to Portland. As LC begins another academic year, staff, faculty and students alike discover just how much of our safe environment was dependent on the PHE, and the pitfalls that emerge without it. 

While many might think that asymptomatic — and even symptomatic — COVID is not a concern anymore, many medical sources attest otherwise. An April article from the National Institute of Health written by medical researchers argues that high levels of asymptomatic transmission can actually lead to higher fatalities.

“When immunity provides protection against symptoms, but not against infections or deaths, epidemic trajectories can have faster growth rates and higher peaks, leading to more total deaths,” the article states.

It was previously required at LC to self-isolate if one tested positive for COVID, but now in accordance with new CDC guidelines, if one is asymptomatic or has been fever-free for 24 hours, one can resume life as usual. This means that students and faculty alike may show up to class having COVID, and it is up to their own discretion whether they wear a mask, or even whether they disclose this information to others.

Although my life might not be threatened by COVID, the prospect of getting sick is highly inconvenient for a packed schedule and keeping up in classes. I understand the pressure not to miss class, but the fact that someone right next to me could be positive for COVID and knowingly come to class anyway is quite unnerving to think about. I can only imagine how heightened this discomfort is for those with compromised immune systems.

Not only are there no protocols to stop asymptomatic COVID from spreading, but the incentive to test at all has been severely diminished. Due to the federal government no longer supplying funding for free testing, LC has been forced to put a price on tests. Fairly inexpensive antigen tests are usually available for purchase at the student bookstore, but they run out quickly. 

Molecular tests are available in the Health Center for $55, but the monetary barrier discourages many students from choosing to find out whether their cough is a cold or COVID. It is not sufficient to live in blind hope of the best case scenario. To continue exercising caution,  we need this knowledge so we can make the most informed decisions.

Yet, our ability to make informed decisions about COVID has become increasingly difficult now that the CDC has ceased providing data on cases and deaths — numbers which many relied on to judge risk levels. Even on a state level, the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) no longer requires anyone, regardless of their workplace, to report a positive COVID test result to the OHA. 

A Feb. Atlantic article entitled “No One Really Knows How Much COVID Is Silently Spreading … Again” by Katherine J. Wu articulates the issues of not having access to this vital data. 

“Even as our worries over the virus continue to shrink and be shunted aside, the virus — and the way it moves between us — is continuing to change. Which means that our best ideas for stopping its spread aren’t just getting forgotten; they’re going obsolete,” Wu said. “Better studies on transmission patterns would help cut through the muck; they’re just not really happening anymore.”

My grievances with these circumstances are not directed at LC, but rather at the larger decisions being made by state and federal governments. One of the reasons I chose to attend this college was because of their exceedingly responsible and proactive COVID response. Even when dealing with stripped funding, I see that they are still making efforts where possible.

For example, although isolation housing for those with COVID is no longer an option, temporary safe rooms for immunocompromised or high risk individuals whose roommate has COVID are available. The meal pickup service has been discontinued, but exceptions are being made so that a friend or roommate may use a sick student’s ID card to swipe into the dining hall for them and bring them food.

Another crucial development in COVID protocol is that LC no longer requires COVID vaccinations. In my previous years at LC, I had the security of knowing that over 99% of the people that I was regularly around were vaccinated, but this year that comfort is gone. However, I do appreciate the fact that LC strongly encourages and endorses vaccination on their COVID response website page and provides online resources for how to get vaccinated. Hopefully, when the next booster vaccine comes out, LC will hold an on-campus vaccination clinic, like they have had in past years.

I am not claiming to be a model of COVID caution. I do attend social gatherings and enter less crowded public areas without a mask. But I have been able to feel comfortable embracing these freedoms after a long period of being hypervigilant about isolating, distancing and masking precisely because of the protocols in place that made LC a safer space. Without them, it is time for me to reevaluate what I will do next.

Part of this nuanced and seemingly never-ending issue is also learning to live in a world where we coexist with COVID — maybe not a post-COVID world, but one where it plays a much smaller role. It is about balancing the motivation to keep seeking information with keeping our fear in check,  not getting carried away in uninformed, careless assumptions while challenging ourselves to acknowledge when it’s time to accept where things are and take a grateful breath — whether that is through a mask or not.

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