Emory University is beginning discussions on potentially lifting mask requirements “in the next few weeks,” Executive Director for COVID-19 Response and Recovery Amir St. Clair told the Wheel. However, the University has not yet decided when any restrictions would be loosened or the degree to which they would be reduced.
“We are certainly closer to that range of making or being in a position to make decisions than we have been in a long time,” St. Clair said. “Is it tomorrow? No, but is it in the next few weeks? Potentially.”
Universities across the country have already begun lifting their mask mandates. Some colleges, like the University of Alabama and Auburn University (Ala.), strongly reduced or completely lifted their mask mandates as of Feb. 21 and Nov. 15, respectively. Others, like Princeton University (N.J.) and Purdue University (Ind.), have announced they will reconsider their masking policies soon.
The University’s reconsideration of masking policies follows a decline in COVID-19 cases on campus. There have been 49 cases among students and faculty in the past 10 days, which is a decrease from the 157 cases reported on Feb. 8, according to the University’s COVID-19 dashboard.
St. Clair said the University could consider a selective masking policy for certain spaces, such as requiring masks during crowded functions or on shuttles.
“Those trend lines are falling quickly, which is really positive news,” St. Clair said. “Public health forecasts are increasingly pointing to more optimistic, more improved conditions moving forward.”
St. Clair attributed the low case numbers to vaccinations and boosters. He said that about 92% of all eligible faculty and staff have reported the booster, while 80% of students have done the same. The University’s ability to loosen COVID-19 protocols depends on getting an accurate estimate of booster rates, according to St. Clair.
St. Clair said that 21 faculty and staff members got the booster shot during the University’s free booster clinics on Feb. 7 and Feb. 10. Emory will not host another clinic.
As spring break nears and students plan their vacations and parties, St. Clair said he is expecting a potential increase in cases, but he is not anticipating a full spike due to the absence of a new variant and vaccine efficacy concerns.
To mitigate any potential increases after spring break, St. Clair and Executive Director of Student Health Services Sharon Rabinovitz stressed the importance of getting the booster vaccine and asymptomatic testing before and after trips.
“It’s important to reinforce the testing option, that self efficacy and knowledge that we now have, of what you do have control over,” Rabinovitz said.
As the University takes the next steps in its COVID-19 response, St. Clair said that students and faculty should be flexible. If conditions become unsafe, the University will not lift the mask mandate or will begin requiring masks again if it was already lifted.
“We have to be nimble and adapt, and that’s OK,” St. Clair said. “That doesn’t mean some things aren’t working. That doesn’t mean we have to throw in everything we’ve been doing and say it’s not effective, it just means that the conditions have changed, and we’re going to respond and adapt accordingly.”
Madi Olivier is from Highland Village, Texas, and is majoring in psychology and minoring in rhetoric, writing and information design. Outside of the Wheel, she is involved in psychology research and works for the Trevor Project. In her free time, you can find her trying not to fall while bouldering and watching Criminal Minds with her cat.