Georgetown University’s mask-optional policy went into effect March 21. The case rate has since risen from 1.5% during the week of March 13-19 to 3.82% during the week of March 27 to April 2. Outbreaks of a new COVID-19 variant, BA.2, are causing spikes in cases across Europe and Asia, an indication of possible outbreaks here in the United States.
The threat of the COVID-19 pandemic is not over; Georgetown should not discount the dangers of “long COVID-19” nor the devastating impacts of COVID-19 for at-risk populations on campus. To embody its Jesuit value of “cura personalis,” Georgetown should not have gotten rid of the mask mandate in classrooms to begin with. Only when COVID-19 became a danger for the community at large did Georgetown finally act to protect those who are most vulnerable. Moreover, those calling for the continued lifting of the mask mandate are disregarding the health of their most vulnerable community members.
Immunocompromised students deserve to learn and live in a safe environment. Commuters risk bringing the virus home every day to their family members, many of whom are older parents or young children. Professors and staff members face the danger of infection every time they show up to work.
Although the death and hospitalization rates among younger people are substantially lower than those of older populations, COVID-19 continues to pose serious dangers to young people. A United Kingdom study found that approximately 10% of those who have had COVID-19, including young people, experience prolonged symptoms even if their initial symptoms were relatively mild.
“Long COVID” refers to symptoms that last longer than three weeks after infection and can include difficulty breathing, fatigue, brain fog, heart palpitations, joint or muscle pain, changes in taste or smell, changes in the menstrual cycle and even a potential increased risk of developing diabetes.
There is very little else currently known about long COVID, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recognizes it as a prominent threat for young people, even for those without underlying conditions. The U.S. Department of Education has recognized long COVID as a disability to be accommodated in schools, demonstrating the severity of the disease.
Although vaccinations are very effective in preventing deaths and hospitalizations, masking on campus is still necessary to limit viral transmission spread and protect against long COVID. Results have varied on the efficacy of vaccine protection against long COVID. For example, a U.K. study in February 2022 found that close to 10% of fully vaccinated participants showed symptoms of long COVID three months later. For those who are immunocompromised, certain drugs to treat chronic conditions can lower the antibody production response of the vaccine. The best way to prevent long COVID, for now, is to avoid infection in the first place.
Masks work best if everyone wears them: a National Academy of Sciences study found that one-way, well-fitted masking posed a 20% risk of infection, while universal, well-fitted masking dropped the risk to 0.4%. Wearing a fitted N95 or KN95 mask offers a great deal of protection, but not nearly as much if nobody else is.
Dropping the mask requirement in the classroom is dangerous. Neither students nor professors should feel as if they are putting their health or their families’ health at risk in the classroom. However, with the mandatory in-person class policy in place, vulnerable students and professors have little choice but to attend class, regardless of masking policy.
In some cases, masks may hinder communication. To remedy this difficulty and facilitate conversation, individuals can wear see-through masks, hold classes outside, allow for virtual instruction or institute any other mutually agreed-upon measures between students and professors.
Almost one million people in the United States have died of COVID-19 as of April 6, 2022. The pandemic isn’t over, and pretending it is won’t make it go away. It will only make things worse for those who are the most vulnerable.
Georgetown students are meant to be “people for others.” We pride ourselves on “cura personalis,” but true respect for one another means prioritizing the health and safety of our entire community. Georgetown should not have lifted the mandate, especially in classrooms. Only through collective action and responsibility can we protect those who are most at risk in our communities.
Isabel Janovsky is a junior in the College.