Within the past few weeks, the number of COVID-19 cases has sharply risen across the U.S., with a 59% increase over two weeks ago alone. With almost 200,000 new cases each day, the U.S. is in its deadliest COVID-19 phase since the pandemic began. The Emory community has not been spared from its rapid spread.
Despite preventative measures including frequent testing, enforced mask-wearing and social distancing, COVID-19 cases have consistently hit weekly highs among Emory students, faculty and staff in the past month. Students living off campus, who have access to on-campus buildings if they complete a brief onboarding process, have also experienced a surge in cases. Next semester, Emory must increase its testing regimen and tighten its onboarding process for off-campus students, faculty and staff.
On Oct. 15, Emory outlined its plans for the spring semester, which includes increasing the density of on-campus students by 25%. When these plans were announced, the state of the pandemic was drastically different and an increase in campus population was thought to be manageable. That is no longer the case.
As COVID-19 worsens, Emory has failed to outline how it will augment current procedures to improve the safety of faculty, students and staff. Thus far, they have only announced a new testing method, the saliva COVID-19 test, which will fully replace rapid tests starting Nov. 23. This is considered a more comfortable and accurate method than nasal swab testing but returns results much slower, taking up to 24 hours compared to 20 minutes for nasal swab testing. The University has not yet made a clear statement on whether students should quarantine as they await their results for the saliva test. If this new testing protocol is to succeed, Emory must both require students to quarantine while waiting for their saliva test results and offer the nasal swab test to those who cannot self-quarantine.
Given that the University does not require staff to take COVID-19 tests, many Campus Services employees have expressed significant concerns about the safety of their work environment. Instead of routine testing, staff are told to independently monitor their symptoms and wash their hands. Given the virus’s propensity to spread asymptomatically and the relative ineffectuality of hygiene-based strategies against it, employees are right to complain.
Moreover, the fact that even the Campus Services employees who do take COVID-19 tests will need to quarantine for up to 24 hours before receiving their results begs the question: will Emory compensate them for taking that time off? If not, employees will need to choose between feeding their families and protecting the health of both their loved ones and the Emory community. Consequently, the University must provide staff with paid leave while they wait for test results, rapid nasal swab tests or both. Without mandatory and regular testing, neither employees nor their families will feel safe from the virus.
Additionally, students who live off campus are not required to be regularly tested once they’ve completed the onboarding process — which includes a singular COVID-19 test — and yet they are granted full access to campus buildings and resources. With the dangerous potential to exacerbate the spread of the virus on campus, off-campus students are not required to meet the same safety expectations as on-campus residents. This must change come spring.
The University has taken minimal steps to account for the worsening spread of COVID-19, especially during flu season. Delaying the start of the semester to avoid flu season and mandating flu shots for those living on campus, which they have done, is a temporary but necessary barrier against a winter COVID-19 surge at Emory. However, a comprehensive overhaul of current procedures is necessary to avoid an increase in cases as students begin to return to Emory.
Emory cannot ignore the current influx of COVID-19 cases. To avoid a disastrous spring, we entreat Emory to allow access to rapid nasal swab tests, clarify quarantining procedures for those awaiting test results, increase resources for off-campus students and staff, and tighten restrictions surrounding campus access. With a vaccine on the horizon, the end of this pandemic appears in sight. Emory, we’ve made it this far. Don’t blow it for us now.
The above editorial represents the majority opinion of the Wheel’s Editorial Board. The Editorial Board is composed of Sahar Al-Gazzali, Brammhi Balarajan, Viviana Barreto, Rachel Broun, Kemal Budak, Jake Busch, Sara Khan, Demetrios Mammas, Meredith McKelvey, Sara Perez, Ben Thomas, Leah Woldai and Lynnea Zhang.