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Reactions: Princeton to ditch the mask mandate and asymptomatic testing

<h6>Harsimran Makkad / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Harsimran Makkad / The Daily Princetonian

On March 2, 2022, Princeton University announced that masks will not be required indoors in any setting except classes where a professor or TA chooses to mandate them from March 14 onwards. In addition, Princeton will now only test undergraduate students once a month — mostly to monitor COVID-19 spread on campus. 

We asked our columnists for their Reactions to this new shift. 

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“Individual responsibility” is an unacceptable response

By Brittani Telfair, Senior Columnist 

Moving to a model of “individual responsibility” during a pandemic is ridiculous. Some Princeton students do not care about the wellbeing of their peers and thus will engage in high-risk behavior (like going to packed, maskless parties at eating clubs) without a second thought. Behaviors like these facilitate the spread of COVID-19. Without structures to keep us all safe, an individual can do “everything right” — mask, social distance, and limit their social interactions — and still contract COVID-19 because of the actions of other individuals.

The policy change represents a failure of the administration to lead: instead of following science and taking steps to contain an infectious disease, they have chosen to perform a return to “normalcy.” This puts the most vulnerable members of our community — such as immunocompromised students who are still being forced to attend in-person classes — at serious risk. It also disregards that, frankly, some people do not want to contract COVID-19 at all regardless of how “severe” the infection is.

Brittani Telfair is a senior from Richmond, Va. majoring in SPIA and pursuing a certificate in African American Studies. She can be reached at btelfair@princeton.edu or @brittanit10 on Twitter. 

Better late than never 

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By David Piegaro, Contributing Columnist 

Vaccines work wonders. The most commonly-worn masks barely work. Those two facts should have led us to abandon the mask mandate last summer as vaccines became widely available. The truth of the matter is that COVID-19 poses a negligible risk to most boosted individuals. The very old and immunocompromised do face more risk, but Paxlovid (Pfizer’s protease inhibitor drug) and monoclonal antibodies offer effective treatment options to those most vulnerable of populations. One-way masking works! On top of that, air filtration and ventilation offer effective mitigation strategies at low compliance costs.

Once a community is vaccinated, masks impose costs that are not justified by their negligible benefits. Those costs may not be huge burdens individually, but they add up and detract from our quality of life. What’s more, they’re symbols — ever-present reminders of the stress and difficulty of the last two years and the myriad frustrations that came along with our floundering response. It’s time to move on. Seeing more of people’s faces is a great reminder that we are doing just that.

David Piegaro is a first-year from Ewing, N.J. He can be reached at dpiegaro@princeton.edu.

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Delay your gratification for just a little longer!

By Abigail Rabieh, Columnist 

When I come back from break, relaxed and refreshed, I know that going to precept will be wonderful. The idea of walking into a room and seeing everyone smiling and chatting unmasked is hard to imagine, but I cannot wait to experience it. However, I wonder if we could all wait just a bit longer.

Seeing that 15 percent of the student body has had COVID-19 in the past two weeks has been hard for me to wrap my head around, and it is honestly scary. Though I scoffed at the prospect of getting sick when the campus case rates were low, I worry about my health now that the virus seems impossible to avoid. Long COVID-19 is still a mysterious illness, but some researchers estimate that of people who get COVID-19, 30 percent or more experience long-term symptoms. Even more than my own safety, I worry about my roommate, who is currently fighting another illness. A COVID-19 infection could be extremely dangerous for her recovery. There are many more community members for whom it could be worse.

But now, it seems like we are throwing up our hands and giving up on controlling the disease. We have spent the entire year avoiding this exact scenario. Finals were moved online and even canceled last semester when 24 community members tested positive for COVID-19. I do not understand why we are easing restrictions when transmission is at an all-time high. The University’s March 2 email says that it wants us to get back to “a semblance of normality.” I attend class every day. I eat in the dining hall with friends. I can go to an eating club whenever I want. What is so far from normal about that?

I want to stop wearing a mask as much as everyone else. I want to avoid the anxiety of submitting a test, not knowing what the results will say, and thinking through what plans I might have to cancel. But it makes no sense to remove these restrictions when COVID-19 is spreading so rapidly and posing a danger to our community.

Abigail Rabieh is a first-year from Cambridge, Mass. She can be reached at ar5732@princeton.edu. 

Ignoring our community’s most vulnerable

By Ndeye Thioubou, Columnist 

In the recent email sent out by Provost Prentice and Executive Vice President Williams to the student and faculty body, there is an emphasis on taking responsible steps surrounding masking and the testing protocol. Yet it is hard to categorize these new updates to the protocol themselves as responsible when they don’t properly account for the immunocompromised student body.

The memo praises the resilience of the undergraduate student body after a week with over 300 cases of COVID-19. But undergraduates shouldn’t have to be dealing with such a high caseload in the first place. For immunocompromised students, the removal of the mask mandate and testing requirement will only compound the anxiety of the past couple of weeks. With only one required test per month, an asymptomatic, COVID-19-positive student could attend class unmasked and potentially spread the virus to others without anyone ever knowing due to the wide time range between required tests.

What accommodations will be made for immunocompromised students who don’t feel comfortable being in unmasked classrooms, even if they are wearing a mask? These students will likely be provided with Zoom links (if anything is done to accommodate them at all), but then they have to make the choice between their health and an optimal, in-person academic experience.

The University optimistically notes that cases have been mild for students, but that might not be the case after the relaxation of testing and masking restrictions. Naturally, a reduction in testing and more unmasked situations will allow COVID-19 to spread quicker on campus, and likely reach more immunocompromised students. It has been shown that preexisting conditions can lead to severe symptoms from COVID-19.

In the removal and loosening of testing and masking restrictions, the University is only further marginalizing a group that is already marginalized on campus — immunocompromised students.

Ndeye Thioubou is a first-year from The Bronx, N.Y. She can be reached at nthioubou@princeton.edu. 

A decision that reflects a shifting narrative 

By Prince Takano, Contributing Columnist 

In early February, several Democratic states rolled back their mask mandates, citing a noticeable decline in cases and hospitalizations. These roll-backs occurred despite the firm recommendation to keep the mandates from the CDC, which declared on Feb. 8 that “Now is not the moment [to drop mask mandates].” In the short span of about two weeks, The Science™ conveniently changed and the CDC reversed its position, maintaining that an indoor mask requirement was no longer necessary for most of the United States.

The University’s new mask guidelines reflect this sudden shift in “The Science.” Although nearly every state is still experiencing a “high” level of community transmission, mask mandates continue to fall away and Princeton is no exception. Ultimately, these new University mask guidelines are not a surprising development, given that the CDC has recently embraced the strategy of “learning to live with COVID-19,” following Democratic governors and the Biden Administration, who have realized that militant masking is a political loser, especially in an election year.

The University’s COVID-19 policies have largely reflected the CDC’s recommendations ever since the beginning of the pandemic, which helps to explain the sudden shift in the University’s masking policy despite the recent surge in cases on campus. The University’s new mask guidelines seem to be a downstream effect of a political development rather than strictly based on the public health facts.

Prince Takano is a sophomore majoring in Politics. He can be reached via email at takano@princeton.edu.

Princeton got the timing just right

By Christofer Robles, Contributing Columnist 

This coming March will mark the two-year anniversary of the first global COVID-19 shutdowns and the dawn of an era defined by masks, social distancing, and learning what PCR stands for. Over the past two years, there have been recurring fears of overwhelmed hospitals and the overall health of the population. But after two years, these fears may finally be laid to rest. The end of the pandemic era is near and Princeton has made the appropriate decision to move away from its previous testing and mask policies.

It is undeniable that there has been a dramatic surge in cases among undergraduate students, but this is, and will continue to be, the new normal. We have worn masks, tested frequently, and accepted unilateral policies because it has been for the greater benefit of the general population of the University and of the people around us that we do so. But as our public health tools have adapted to COVID-19, we have been able to move away from these restrictions.

The situation is looking better nationally. The CDC reports an 18.8 percent decrease in the current seven-day moving average of new deaths, as of Feb. 25 — a figure that continues to show a decline. This is in large part due to breakthroughs in vaccinations over the last year, with 64.8 percent of the total U.S. population being fully vaccinated and 88.75 percent of people aged 65 years or older being fully vaccinated. Locally, 99 percent of the Princeton undergraduate population is fully vaccinated, there have been no COVID-19 related hospitalizations among University members, and the CDC has assessed that Mercer County poses a “Low” COVID risk, recommending mask wearing be based on “your personal preference, informed by your personal level of risk.”

It is never good to be sick. But the University has been able to transition to a place where we can have crowded dining halls, in-person lectures, and even a spike in COVID-19 cases without sacrificing the safety of the student body. The personal choices to continue to wear a mask, socially distance, and be COVID-19 conscious continue to exist; these choices, however, must be made individually. The University has chosen an appropriate time to roll back its previous policies and I believe we are even closer to a post-COVID-19 era.

Christofer Robles is a first-year from Trenton, New Jersey.  He can be reached via email at cdrobles@princeton.edu.

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