In the 2020-2021 school year prior to COVID-19 vaccinations, the health guidelines on how to approach exposure, sickness and quarantine were profoundly clear and standard. If exposed, students knew they were expected to quarantine for 10-14 days. If sick, students were quick to get themselves tested for COVID-19. With 92% of students now self-reporting as fully vaccinated at the University of Michigan, the guidelines and norms for maintaining a healthy community are increasingly less clear.
Since returning to campus, the general consensus among students is that the days of quarantining and voluntary mask-wearing outside of school buildings are over. While students mask up for class and to use campus buildings such as gyms and libraries, one visit to the Starbucks on South U. shows students do not feel the need to wear masks in other indoor public spaces.
While mask-wearing may not be considered a necessity for the vaccinated, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that even vaccinated individuals “wear a mask indoors in public” when in areas of substantial or high transmission. According to the CDC’s COVID Data Tracker, community transmission in Washtenaw County is currently considered high with 498 new cases from Sept. 5 to Sept. 13, and 57 new hospital admissions.
The CDC also recommends getting tested 3-5 days after exposure and wearing a mask indoors in public for 14 days following an exposure. However, with in-person classes, in-person meetings and social events of student organizations (and the return of large parties to campus), it is difficult to classify what should be considered a test-worthy exposure, especially with the increased transmission rate of the delta variant.
In the 2020-2021 academic year, the delta variant was yet not a threat on campus. This variant, however, has vastly increased the risk of transmission, adding a new dimension to what situations to avoid. It is thought to be at least twice as contagious, and some data suggests that it “might cause more severe illness than previous variants in unvaccinated people.”
Even though fully vaccinated individuals seem to be protected from serious illness, they can spread the virus to both the unvaccinated and vaccinated. The delta variant transmission rate, while lower among vaccinated than unvaccinated individuals, is still higher than the original strains of COVID-19 that the campus experienced last year. As a student on campus this semester, I have already heard of at least five friends (or friends of friends) testing positive that are all vaccinated. With a 92% vaccination rate among students, the campus should be generally protected against severe illness from the virus. However, even vaccinated individuals that do get COVID-19 can still experience extreme negative social and personal ramifications.
While it may not be as severe, COVID-19 is still dangerous and a point of extreme stress for students, staff and faculty. No one wants to have to miss classes, social opportunities or feel miserable for ten (potentially many more) days. With that in mind, it is still in the best interest of the student body to take the basic public health measures to protect the University community.
Students should be socially responsible by getting tested regularly and wearing masks in indoor public spaces following a known possible exposure, especially after being in the same class or social event as someone who tests positive, even if there isn’t close contact. Similarly, students who do test positive for COVID-19 should continue to quarantine and not assume that others won’t contract the disease just because they are vaccinated.
While the fear of serious illness is, for the most part, gone for many, the social, academic and physical consequences of the virus are still daunting and unattractive. It is possible to have a low COVID-19 transmission semester only if the student body continues to be socially conscious and prioritize public health, and that is something we should keep in mind moving forward.
Lizzy Peppercorn is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.