In the past week, the number of positive student COVID-19 cases on Emory campus has spiked. With 209 students testing positive and 141 in isolation, the situation is becoming more dire everyday. And since not all Emory students are regularly tested, the true number of cases is likely higher. Emory’s ambitious reopening plans have been curtailed by the Delta variant. In order to protect its students and staff, Emory needs to scale back some of its reopening plans by requiring all students to get tested weekly and shifting to take-out dining.
In an email sent to students on Sept. 2, Associate Vice President and Executive Director for COVID-19 Response and Recovery Amir St. Clair addressed the rising case numbers and updated the community on new COVID-protocols. In that message, St. Clair outlined a shift to restricting dining and events. The message also encouraged students to get tested weekly to monitor their own health. However, this is not enough, as students will likely consider this a voluntary measure rather than a necessary precaution. University administrators must ensure the protection of its students, staff and faculty by enforcing mandatory protocols in a proactive manner. By leaving it up to the discretion of individual students, we are all forced to assume the responsibility of others’ decisions or lack thereof. This ambiguous protocol is not a realistic means of establishing a healthy community that honors the safety of all its members. It is this very lapse in judgement from the federal and state government that has left the U.S. and Georgia in its current state.
Currently, the U.S. is experiencing the fourth wave of COVID-19, which has been deadly for the unvaccinated. Hospitals see an average of 100,000 COVID patients every day, and August was Florida’s deadliest month of the pandemic. The U.S. is currently averaging 166,000 cases per day and hospitals have been overwhelmed. The Atlanta area is no exception. Georgia recently set a new high in COVID cases and the hospitals are overflowing. Even Emory University Hospital has begun turning away patients due to overcapacity. The Delta variant is as contagious as chicken pox, and even with high vaccination rates, it can still spread. We need a stronger response from Emory.
Since the first week of school, residence halls no longer require students to wear masks in both their own buildings as well as those they choose to visit. In essence, this means that students do not need to wear masks around each other and their friends, and defeats the purpose of the University’s attempts to enforce the indoor mask mandate. This not only fails to comply with the guidelines of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention but also puts students at greater risk of transmission. Instead of allowing people to run maskless in residence halls, Emory needs to reinstate a strict masking policy inside dorms.
The administration’s most glaring errors have been with dining. Within dining areas, numerous students, faculty, staff and hospital workers are often maskless eating together for extended periods of time. Strongly encouraging people to eat outside is not enough, the University must take action to enforce this policy. Until cases subside around campus, Cox Hall and the Dobbs Common Table need to shift to a take-out only plan.
Testing is another major issue for the University. Since there are only 15,000 screen tests available per week, Emory may not currently have the capacity to test all 28,177 faculty, students and staff every week, and we should revise our testing policy to closely monitor potentially positive asymptomatic cases. If Emory continues to test building wastewater as they did in the previous year, they must not only release the results to the public but also test buildings with positive cases. One viable option could be mandatory testing of a random batch of students weekly, potentially catching cases of students who would not get tested otherwise. If the University provides the community with repeated testing and monitoring, we may be able to slow down the current upward tick in cases.
We understand that administrators face daunting logistical challenges, especially regarding isolation and quarantine protocols. But this is no excuse. Emory needs to expand their infrastructure for students who have COVID-19. In fact, researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital and the Harvard Medical School concluded that students in residential colleges should be tested every two to three days in order to prevent the spread of cases from asymptomatic students. Emory should work to expand testing to at least three times per week.
Until our campus is under control, we are all at risk; we will continue to have COVID-19 scares weekly and live in fear of contracting the virus. Vaccinations alone will not get us through the semester safely — Emory must do better because they are currently failing to foster a safe learning environment.
All of these precautions would help us forestall another online semester — something many students wish to avoid. Luckily, as St. Clair outlined to students, faculty and staff, there is no apparent evidence of classroom transmission. Shifting classes online again would kneecap students’ mental health and social wellbeing for months to come. Vigilance now should help us stay in person for the whole semester — we cannot sacrifice that for a frat party or a few big meals inside the dining hall. COVID-19 isn’t going away anytime soon, and the fragile semblances of our community could exacerbate the ever-increasing risk of deadly variants. That’s a reality Emory simply must accept. If we fail, our entire year is doomed.
The above editorial represents the majority opinion of the Wheel’s Editorial Board. The Editorial Board is composed of Viviana Barreto, Rachel Broun, Sara Khan, Martin Li, Sophia Ling, Demetrios Mammas, Sara Perez, Ben Thomas and Leah Woldai.