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COVID-19 is here forever: Princeton’s administration needs to start acting like it

<h5>COVID-19 testing tents, set up on campus at the start of the fall</h5>
<h6>Julian Gottfried / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
COVID-19 testing tents, set up on campus at the start of the fall
Julian Gottfried / The Daily Princetonian

The following is a guest contribution and reflects the author’s views alone. For information on how to submit an article to the Opinion Section, click here.

When I received Dean Dolan’s email over Thanksgiving break, I experienced a number of emotions — frustration, confusion, and stress, among others — but I was certainly not surprised. The University’s heavy-handed reaction to a mid-sized COVID-19 outbreak on campus was unsurprising because of its hyper-fixation on a single goal: minimizing COVID-19 cases on campus.

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Beyond being unrealistic, however, this goal makes little sense and is completely out of touch with the reality of COVID-19 at this stage in the pandemic. Experts now accept that COVID-19 is going to be an endemic disease. Simply put, it is here forever. It will be in our communities, on campus, and prevalent throughout the world for the rest of our lives. Short of living like hermits, many epidemiologists agree that most of us will likely get some variant or another of COVID-19 at least once in our lifetimes.

As such, there is no cogent reason for the University to continue imposing heavy-handed “emergency measures,” most notably social gathering and travel restrictions, neither of which are based on New Jersey state guidelines, for a virus that will be here forever. 

In this editorial, I will examine the University’s three most commonly-cited underlying motives for minimizing cases and illustrate why they make no rational sense for an endemic virus: enacting temporary measures for an acute public health crisis, (meaningfully) protecting the campus community, and (meaningfully) protecting individuals in the surrounding communities. After examining each, it becomes apparent that minimizing cases on campus does not properly serve any of these goals. Thus, University leadership needs to become less restrictive and more comfortable with COVID-19 cases on campus.

The first commonly-cited reason for harsh restrictions by the University is that it is responding to an acute global pandemic with “temporary” measures. However, waning vaccine efficacy, the delta variant, and especially the omicron variant illustrate that this virus will most likely continue to evolve faster than we can roll out vaccines against it. Specifically, we can no longer entertain the hope that if we lock down now, we’ll be safer at some point in the near future. The reality is that now that we’re vaccinated and have increasing access to boosters, we’re as safe as we’ll ever be for the foreseeable future. As such, there is no longer a reasonable justification to implement harsh social and travel restrictions as a temporary measure. Unless the University plans to make these measures permanent, they serve no legitimate purpose as an interim measure.

The second reason (and generally most commonly-given) for the more restrictive measures is protecting the campus community. Before we were all vaccinated, this was a reasonable goal. Even though COVID-19 death rates among unvaccinated young people are extremely low, COVID-19 was a real danger to older professors and staff members before vaccines were available. Now that nearly the entire campus is vaccinated, though, COVID-19 poses an extremely low risk of hospitalization and death. For people under 50, the death rate among vaccinated people is 0.0 per 100,000 in many states, even during the delta surge. Driving home for Thanksgiving is more dangerous, according to the New York Times (obviously, driving is permitted by the University). If the University’s principal goal was community safety, the numbers and science dictate that it should improve pedestrian safety before implementing restrictions because of rising COVID-19 cases. 

Although there are certain members of our community who are more vulnerable to COVID-19 than others (among them the elderly and immunocompromised), the proper policy course is not to aggressively shut down the vast majority of campus to protect a small minority of the campus community. This is especially true because older faculty/staff are generally more likely to get COVID-19 from off-campus sources anyways (which our lockdowns have no effect on), given New Jersey’s present infection rate, or from their peers, who have had higher infection rates than undergraduates for 10 of the past 13 weeks. Similarly, although COVID-19 on campus may present a challenge for a small number of immunocompromised students, these students are also harmed by other communicable diseases on campus (influenza, strep, rhinoviruses, etc.) that we have allowed to spread unrestrictedly for decades. While the University should work with immunocompromised students on a case-by-case basis to offer reasonable accommodations, harsh restrictions on the vast majority of the student body are not the appropriate solution.

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If Princeton were truly motivated by protecting vulnerable community members, it would have offered older professors and affected students the option to teach and learn remotely. It is worth noting that while the “Princeton Plague” was spreading (which could also have harmed the old and immunocompromised), the University did little to help them, illustrating that their stated goal of protecting the vulnerable from COVID-19 is inconsistent at best. The eagerness to shut down social gatherings before taking a common-sense measure like telework for the vulnerable illustrates the misguided nature of the University’s approach.

Finally, there is the argument that we should prevent campus cases so that our students do not spread COVID-19 into the broader public. However, what’s been clear this semester is that we aren’t giving the public COVID-19; the public is giving us COVID-19. There is no other way to explain going from zero cases per week to a spike. Princeton students are fully vaccinated, whereas 32 percent of New Jerseyans have not gotten fully vaccinated. Given that nearly our entire campus population has taken the single most important step towards protecting the global community against COVID-19, whereas nearly a third of New Jersians have chosen not to, it is highly unreasonable to place restrictions on us that exceed the overall state restrictions.

Thus, it is clear that the University’s policies cannot rationally be explained as temporary measures, protecting the campus community from a meaningful risk, or protecting the broader public. This leaves the question of what real purpose preventing COVID-19 on campus serves. If the University plans to continue its heavy-handed restrictions, it needs to articulate a clear and cogent underlying goal that is meaningfully served by them. These restrictions have an enormous impact on student mental health, and we deserve a clear reason for them to be in place beyond vague allusions to “the health and safety of… our community” (using the words of Vice President for Campus Life Rochelle Calhoun).

And I get it, COVID-19 is scary. But it’s here forever, so it’s time we start acting like it and get back to our lives, starting with an end to the administration’s overzealous new restrictions.

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Harry Shapiro is a senior from Chicago, IL. He can be reached at hss2@princeton.edu.  

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