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Amid change to masking and testing policies, University COVID-19 cases see post-spring break dip

<h5>McCosh Health Center.</h5>
<h6>Zachary Shevin / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
McCosh Health Center.
Zachary Shevin / The Daily Princetonian

Undergraduates returned from spring break to a campus with a new set of COVID-19 policies: masking is no longer required in most campus spaces and most students are required to test once monthly following their arrival test.

The COVID-19 dashboard, which has now been updated to include post-spring break cases, indicates that the campus positivity rate fell to 1.25 percent, an approximately 48 percent decrease relative to the 2.40 percent positivity rate reported during the week before spring break ending on March 4. 

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The University’s adjusted COVID-19 policies came in the wake of new CDC guidelines announcing that 98 percent of U.S. counties, including Mercer County, have reported COVID-19 case levels safe enough to lift masking recommendations.

The mask mandate change went into effect on March 14, following spring break, which lasted from March 5 to March 13. The shift eased the previous indoor universal mask mandate to permit optional masking in most settings unless otherwise stipulated by course instructors and event coordinators, except for health facilities like McCosh Health Center and public transit, including TigerTransit buses. Individuals participating in the asymptomatic testing protocol who are up to date on their COVID-19 boosters are now required to submit tests only once per month instead of once each week.

With the revised guidelines in place, the University COVID-19 Dashboard has expanded the range of statistics it reports about campus COVID-19 developments to include novel measures, such as campus case severity, essential services status, testing capacity, and more. 

In addition to the updated case rates, the COVID-19 dashboard now exhibits a new measure called the campus mitigation level. This metric considers vaccine and booster efficacy in preventing severe disease, the availability of essential services, isolation capacity, and area healthcare capacity to produce a holistic assessment that reflects the nature of mitigation measures adopted by the University. 

The three possible mitigation levels include “Baseline,” “Moderate Mitigation,” and “Increased Mitigation,” with the latter entailing the most restrictive COVID-19 mitigation measures, including universal masking, gathering restrictions, and frequent asymptomatic testing. 

Monday, March 14, marked the first day that members of the University community participating in the asymptomatic testing protocol were permitted to attend lectures and enter University buildings without wearing face coverings, for the first time since Spring 2020. Between March 12 and March 14, students were required to submit COVID-19 tests and instructed to continue wearing face coverings until they received negative test results.

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According to the Dashboard’s latest COVID-19 results from the week ending on March 11, 4,480 tests were collected from University members participating in the asymptomatic testing protocol; in total, 56 individuals tested positive. This number encompasses 34 undergraduate students, four graduate students, and 18 faculty, staff, and other employees. 

The isolation housing utilization stands at 21.82 percent, with 24 students in isolation as of March 16, a marked decline from the maximum of 235 students who were in isolation at a given point during the week ending on March 3. (Isolation utilization data from the week ending on March 11 is not available on the Dashboard.)

The relaxation of these COVID-19 mitigation measures has polarized students, which some students in support and others expressing disappointment and concern. Seemingly in an effort to counteract potential divisiveness stemming from the transition to an optional masking policy, the University has been disseminating the motto “Masks optional. Compassion required” to encourage students to honor their peers’ decisions regarding masking in indoor settings. The Campus COVID-19 Community update email sent to the student body on March 15 emphasized that “[i]t’s up to us to foster a non-judgmental campus environment in which people’s individual choice to wear a mask or not is honored.”

As of Wednesday, March 16, the dashboard reports a “Baseline” campus mitigation level, with weekly indicators signifying that campus case severity is “mild,” essential services status is “good,” and that isolation capacity is “fair.” 

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Additionally, the University testing capacity is currently designated as “good.” The Baseline mitigation level includes high continued vaccine efficacy and mild to moderate symptoms in those who test positive, according to the dashboard.

Amy Ciceu is a senior writer who often covers research and COVID-19-related developments. She also serves as a Newsletter Editor. She can be reached at aciceu@princeton.edu.

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