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Doing enough: what high-risk individuals can teach us about COVID-19 safety

<h6>Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian

After the first week of classes, one thing is apparent: a large portion of the student body has wholeheartedly embraced the University’s “return to normal.” Aside from the University’s indoor masking requirement and the eating clubs’ members-only policy, few indications on campus show that the COVID-19 pandemic is, in fact, still ongoing. Everything from in-person classes and full-capacity dining halls to the widely-attended Pre-rade and Triangle Frosh Week Show contributes to the feeling that we are living in a post-pandemic Princeton. In our highly vaccinated, regularly tested Orange Bubble, it is easy to forget about COVID-19. However, many students do not have the luxury of forgetting.

Not everyone is equally at-risk for COVID-19. According to the CDC, individuals with certain medical conditions — ranging from diabetes to asthma — are at significantly higher risk of developing serious illness if infected. For high-risk students, the pandemic is still very much a reality. I spoke with Bétel Tenna ’24, who is at high-risk for COVID-19, about the challenges of campus life for high-risk individuals this semester. While the insights sparked by my conversation with Tenna are not representative of all high-risk students’ experiences, they still enrich our understanding of the challenges currently facing high-risk Princetonians.

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According to Tenna, the most concerning and inaccessible aspect of campus life thus far has been University-sponsored social events, such as the Step Sing. She has chosen to skip many of these events due to the huge, predominantly maskless crowds they attract. As Tenna noted, “the risk [of attending these events] is not worth it.” Although she also mentioned that she would feel safer if large lectures were held over Zoom, her primary concern lies outside of the classroom.

Tenna’s perspective on the danger that large social events pose to high-risk students illuminates two substantial shortcomings in the way COVID-19 safety is typically discussed at Princeton.

First, her concerns make obvious a gap in the discourse surrounding Princeton’s updated COVID-19 Policies and Guidelines: social events are rarely addressed in such discussions. Instead, much of the dialogue focuses on academics. For example, last month, the English Department called on the University to allow for remote teaching. In response, Assistant Vice President for Environmental Health and Safety Robin Izzo defended the University's return to in-person classes. Social events did not feature prominently in either appeal despite their centrality to student life.

Second, Tenna’s perspective highlights a flaw in the framing of pandemic safety discourse on campus. When considering COVID-19 safety measures, the first question that comes to many students’ minds is: Is the University doing enough? Posing this question can lead to heated debate about a range of policy issues, including whether or not Princeton should be implementing a mask mandate. Such dialogue only goes so far. It is clear that the University has a degree of responsibility for keeping students safe during the pandemic, but the responsibility does not lie with the University alone.

After speaking with Tenna, I urge students to ask themselves an additional question: Am I doing enough? At first ask, this question is difficult to answer. But here are a few suggestions about what doing enough might look like. It does not mean boycotting all the in-person events we have been looking forward to, but it does mean attending them responsibly. An example raised by Tenna was if you chose to go out of town, be extra careful not to put people at risk of contracting COVID-19 until you get a negative test result. You can also mask indoors even if you are off-campus — especially considering that vaccination rates off-campus are much lower than in the Orange Bubble. Lastly, if someone in your life discloses their high-risk status to you, take it seriously. 

Regardless of University COVID-19 policy, it is possible for each of us to “do enough” to make campus safe for high and low-risk individuals alike. Tenna feels comfortable living in a quad because she trusts her roommates. She doesn’t mind if they go out of town for the weekend because she knows that if they do so, they will do so safely. This is further evidence that doing enough does not have to mean returning to last semester's strict restrictions, and nothing here should be interpreted as a call to do so; rather, doing enough means engaging with our new normal responsibly. 

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For those of us on campus with the luxury to forget about COVID-19, Tenna leaves us with a final note: “I feel like people think [COVID-19] is over. It’s not.”

Genrietta Churbanova is a sophomore from Little Rock, Ark. She can be reached at geaac@princeton.edu. 

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