On Wednesday, December 29th, the leadership of American University informed students of its decision to move classes online until January 31st. The heavy-handed response is due to the rise in COVID-19 cases within the District of Columbia. The Omicron variant is likely responsible for this surge in cases and increases in hospitalizations. The Washington Post describes the surge as “grim”; however, the authors admit that hospitalizations are still below previous surges. Further, The New York Times’ analysis of D.C. COVID-19 data has the city’s 14-day change in cases at +931%. Despite this undeniably significant surge in COVID-19 cases, the 14-day change in hospitalizations severely lags behind at +60%. The city’s 7-day rolling average of COVID-19 deaths is currently 0 and has largely stayed that way since June.
Currently, 66.7% of D.C.’s residents are fully vaccinated while 85.4% are at least partially vaccinated. The total amount of breakthrough cases among fully vaccinated individuals in D.C. is 9,433 — 2% of the vaccinated population. Further, there have been 182 total hospitalizations among fully vaccinated individuals — 1.9% of the breakthrough population and 0.04% of the total vaccinated population. The current 7-day average of non-fully vaccinated cases is a whopping 389.1 per 100,000. For fully vaccinated individuals, the 7-day average of cases is 62.3 per 100,000. This data, which is visible on D.C.’s vaccination data portal, showcases the efficiency of America’s three COVID-19 vaccines.
From a campus-wide perspective, COVID-19 has not done much harm. According to The Eagle, there was one hospitalization reported due to COVID-19 throughout the entire fall semester. Considering that Omicron’s likelihood of sending an individual to the hospital is drastically lower than Delta’s, the probability of American University students being sent to the hospital en masse during the spring semester is incredibly low. Data published in the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) Director’s Blog reveals that fully vaccinated individuals with a booster shot have 25 times more protection against Omicron than fully vaccinated individuals without a booster. The article also mentions that fully vaccinated individuals that were previously infected with COVID-19 had a significant amount of antibodies to fight Omicron, stressing the importance of natural immunity when coupled with the vaccines.
American University is requiring students, whether in-person or online, to have received a booster dose against COVID-19 by February 10, 2022. The Fall 2021 COVID-19 guidelines required faculty and students to wear masks inside University buildings. The AU Disabled Student Union launched a petition for American University to mandate testing for all students during the spring semester. While there is a valid concern for at-risk populations during the COVID-19 pandemic, the solution is already here: booster shots and the new Pfizer antiviral pill. Paxlovid — the name of the pill — can be prescribed to at-risk groups during the onset of symptoms and is 88% effective in reducing hospitalization and death among these populations. Further, the CDC recently updated its quarantine guidelines to no longer recommend a negative test before leaving quarantine as PCR tests can return a positive result up to 12 weeks after infection. Mandatory testing requirements could force students into quarantine for periods longer than scientifically necessary.
Other groups supported this petition; however, the SPA Undergraduate Council decided to spread COVID-19 misinformation while doing so. In an Instagram post, the SPA Undergraduate Council stated: “In late July, the CDC stated that vaccinated people can catch and spread the virus just as easily as those who are not vaccinated.” Whether that is true or a misinterpretation of the data in July is irrelevant, as that specific guidance, which was last updated in November, now states: “Fully vaccinated travelers are less likely to get and spread SARS-CoV-2 compared with unvaccinated persons.” By cherry-picking data from months before the most recent guidance, the SPA Undergraduate Council contributed more to COVID-19 misinformation and fearmongering than most organizations at AU, especially considering the campus-wide presence the organization holds. The SPA Undergraduate Council later issued a correction, but such a correction invalidates the original logic of the statement and makes its purpose redundant.
The rampant fearmongering about COVID-19 from the student body has progressed to the dismal situation we are at now: American University is online for the first three weeks of school. Many students argued this would not happen as they believed the school could not afford to change its modality. However, the administration has found the perfect compromise to maximize their profits. While dorms are open, there are no on-campus activities allowed, and dining options are reduced to to-go boxes that will inevitably be eaten in a student’s dorm. The school goes so far as to outright state that they “encourage students to remain at home.” The school’s statement also mentions “additional testing requirements” for vaccinated students, which will discourage many students from social interactions within dorms, lounges, or popular spots throughout the city. An in-person student at American University will likely wake up, attend Zoom calls, and eat within the same room for the entirety of this online period. Yet, students that decide to stay home due to the school’s encouraging will not see any housing reimbursement as the guidelines currently stand. American University has created a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” approach to COVID-19, and students — literally — are paying for it.
The situation of the pandemic is quite simple: vaccines largely prevent cases, masks largely prevent spread, and antiviral pills largely prevent hospitalizations. Booster shots keep vaccinated individuals up-to-date with their antibodies. American University already had the most effective tools for combatting the pandemic at its disposal before this new guidance. By moving the goalposts once more and deciding that these treatments are not enough for combatting COVID-19, one has to ask: What will be enough? More importantly, one has to analyze what is impacting their life at American University more: COVID-19 or the university’s overbearing response? From conversations with students in various organizations, such as (but not limited to) the Disabled Student Union, the SPA Undergraduate Council, and College Democrats, the answer is more of the latter than one would expect.
This issue, at its core, is not partisan, but the campus’ culture stifles any opposing viewpoint on the issue due to the perception of dissent being a threat to public health. This affects Republicans, Democrats, and independents equally, so long as they hold the dissenting opinion. The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in some of the most advanced medical treatments in modern America and the pandemic has yet to regress to March 2020 levels. The American University administration and student body must face the truth: COVID-19 is not a net-zero game, but we have the tools to minimize the virus’ impact as much as possible. Until this reality is recognized, the university administration will continue to be the largest barrier to a return to normalcy on campus.