Op-ed: Phasing out COVID protocols endangers immunocompromised students

Lauren Ann Wall is a second-year graduate student pursuing a master’s degree in public health and the director of communications for the GWU Disabled Students Collective.

The COVID-19 pandemic is not over, and GW needs to stop pretending it is. Earlier this month, GW repealed its mask mandate in all settings except in classrooms and labs, but with its enforcement already gone, the move was just a formality. Professors and Student Association leaders have been going maskless before the mandate was ever lifted, posting openly on their social media channels and walking freely indoors with their faces uncovered. Besides masking, the end of dedicated isolation housing unfairly burdens low-income students with the need to make alternative arrangements to isolate from their infected roommates. And the University’s test-optional policy has left behind an inaccurate picture of COVID cases at GW.

Immunocompromised students have borne the brunt of the pandemic – many of us have been in total or near total isolation for more than two years. While those with healthy immune systems no longer need to be concerned with COVID, individuals with compromised immune systems need to vigilantly protect their immune systems or they could get very sick. Throughout my time at GW, I have constantly had to ask myself whether attending an in-person social event would be worth the risk of contracting COVID given the chance of exposure. But we could appropriately gauge our risk and assess our safety for in-person events if GW implemented a required-but-random testing method and reinstated its mask mandate.

Widespread vaccination and masking made it relatively safer to go out, but these measures rely on other people’s compliance. Those around us on campus often no longer wear masks, and students who have not been able to get vaccinated due to existing medical conditions lack the protection that others have. Basic in-person interactions, like attending student organization events on campus, could lead to weeks or months of active infection and then recovery – they’re too risky for immunocompromised students.

There’s a mindset on campus that the pandemic is over, but it’s not. After I and a few other students asked to tune into a class via Zoom, our professor said he hadn’t planned on offering remote learning this term given the new policies in place. This lack of accommodations for nondisabled students pressures them to go to class when they shouldn’t because they might be contagious or face a high risk of infection – if a student says they can’t come to class, then faculty need to believe them. Making students second guess whether they’re “sick enough” to stay home puts them at risk of contracting or spreading COVID.

And the consequences of COVID infections are much more complex than a binary of survival or death. This virus isn’t just a cold or flu – it can damage your lungs, heart and other organs. Nearly 20 percent of people infected with the coronavirus develop long COVID, which can cause them to experience extreme fatigue, chest pain, coughing and brain fog. These lingering symptoms can last for years. COVID can cause other secondary conditions and long-term disabilities that impact the body’s ability to circulate blood, lead to fainting and dizziness and make even the simplest tasks exhausting. And minorities, particularly Black and Latine people, have more negative health outcomes compared to white people after a COVID infection due to racial disparities in comorbidities and access to health care.

Since GW has repealed the testing mandate, the people who are getting tested are either very careful or actively sick. Without a randomized sample of our University community, GW’s daily positivity reports are watered down and make it harder for immunocompromised students to judge the risks they face. And as people retreat to indoor settings as we enter the colder months, infection rates are going to go up again. But how will we know without the proper data?

GW should implement a program to randomly test a sample of all people on campus, including faculty, staff and students. An algorithm could randomly select 20 percent of the population to get tested in two-week cycles, meaning each person would probably have to test about once a semester in practice. They could receive an email that gives them 72 hours to get tested before they lose campus tap access. And to clearly represent the state of COVID on campus, GW should analyze and present this randomly-collected data separately from the voluntary tests.

Other higher education institutions like Georgetown and Penn State universities and the University of California, Irvine have used this random testing method. Though testing has moved from the trailer on H and 20th streets to smaller locations at 1957 E Street and Monroe and the Science and Engineering halls, GW can still facilitate mass testing. American University has installed PCR testing vending machines throughout campus buildings, which allows students and faculty to test in their homes and drop off their tests at their own convenience without taking up much campus space. A similar model with self-administered, take-home PCR tests – which are far more accurate than rapid antigen tests – would allow the GW community to test easily without reinstating huge infrastructure.

Without these changes, more people will likely get sick, and those who will suffer the most are the already-vulnerable population of immunocompromised students. We need to reinstate and enforce the masking mandate to protect our immunocompromised peers until we have a more accurate and ongoing data set. Only when we are able to continuously assess the campus-wide positivity rate can we make well-informed policy decisions about the necessary procedures for COVID prevention on campus for the good of all members of our GW community.

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