I concluded my previous article for the News –– written at the start of the spring 2021 semester –– by stating, “So at least until the COVID-19 crisis is over, it’s like Bob Dylan said: ‘You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way.’”
It turns out I was too optimistic. The COVID-19 crisis is over for Yalies, but we still aren’t back all the way.
According to the New York Times’ COVID-19 tracker, Connecticut has never averaged more than 8.1 deaths per day due to COVID-19 since June 1. It has spent most of that time hovering between zero and five deaths per day. With only 14 cases per 100,000 residents in the last seven days (as of the writing of this article), Connecticut has the least amount of COVID-19 spread of any state in the country. And Yale’s COVID-19 dashboard shows that only one Yale undergraduate has tested positive in the last seven days.
COVID-19, then, no longer represents a public health crisis for the Yale community. Yet, Yale still insists on imposing a litany of restrictions on campus life. Among other things, indoor social gatherings are restricted to 20 people and outdoor social gatherings are restricted to 50 people — unless these seven conditions are met or prior approval is granted from a health and safety leader. The University requires weekly testing, even for vaccinated students. And, most frustratingly, the Yale community is required to wear masks in indoor spaces.
These policies are pure performance, as the inconsistency of their application is immediately apparent. There are plenty of University-sanctioned scenarios –– including large lectures, gyms and the extracurricular bazaar –– in which the capacity limits are greatly exceeded. Yale College Dean of Student Affairs Melanie Boyd acknowledged that “some official gatherings … will exceed these numbers” due to careful planning that social settings may lack. But this planning –– which, according to an August 26 Town Hall, includes mask usage and ventilation checks, as well as limits on duration, interpersonal mingling and eating and drinking –– largely does not apply to dining halls, where hundreds of students move around, eat and drink and socialize unmasked.
Masks, though, are the most illustrative case of symbolic COVID-19 measures. It’s been painful to see professors gasping for breath and squinting through foggy glasses as they speak for hours into what is a moist breeding ground for bacteria. I am all the more indignant because there is a very compelling argument to be made against mask mandates. This randomized controlled trial from Denmark found that “a recommendation to wear a surgical mask when outside the home among others did not reduce, at conventional levels of statistical significance, incident SARS-CoV-2 infection compared with no mask recommendation.” The first, and to my knowledge, only randomized controlled trial that purports to show masks having a positive effect has an important methodological problem, as acknowledged by the lead author in this thread — participants self-reported symptoms and then self-selected into getting blood drawn for COVID-19 testing. And, even ignoring this concern, the study failed to find a statistically significant benefit for cloth masks. The CDC’s webpage surveying the evidence on masks is limited to low-quality observational studies, and it is telling that it does not cite a single randomized controlled trial to support wearing masks.
Masks are especially puzzling because the science prior to COVID-19 overwhelmingly showed that masks had, at best, a minimal effect on the transmission of respiratory viruses. The World Health Organization’s 2019 report on influenza examined 10 relevant randomized controlled trials and found that despite the “mechanistic plausibility” of face masks, “there was no evidence that face masks are effective in reducing transmission of laboratory-confirmed influenza.”
I cite the above studies not to say that masks don’t work. All we can conclude from the above is that the evidence for masking is not well supported by randomized controlled trials: there’s no conclusive evidence to show that they do work. And yet the mask mandate is still in place.
Even when we put aside the efficacy question, though, these restrictions signal Yale’s inability to come to terms with a dawning reality: COVID-19 is endemic and will be with us for years to come.
An outbreak of cases at Yale seems inevitable, given what is happening at other colleges. But these cases will not result in significant numbers of hospitalizations or deaths. It is hard to imagine a better-situated community; Yale is disproportionately young and healthy. Virtually everyone is vaccinated. And Connecticut has the lowest number of cases per capita of any state in the country.
At this stage, then, Yale’s COVID-19 policies are completely gratuitous. They operate on unreasonable levels of fear and imply that restrictions could continue ad infinitum. There is no endgame, even though COVID-19 no longer poses a serious threat to our community’s health.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t like the prospect of enduring pandemic measures for years and years to come.
The only logical solution is to accept reality: COVID-19 is here to stay. Cases of the virus may rise, but COVID-19 is no longer a crisis.
Knowing this, Yale, it’s time to let us fully live our lives. Stop the mask-arade, end the restrictions and let us come back all the way.
JACK BARKER is a Senior in Pauli Murray college. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org