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Why my university restored its mask mandate

Keeping case numbers low is still an important goal. It protects the health of our community members and avoids disruption of students’ education.

George Washington University on Sept. 5, 2019. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)
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This week, we at George Washington University made the difficult decision to reimpose an indoor mask mandate — joining several other area universities, including Georgetown, Johns Hopkins and American. We had ended a previous mandate only on April 4, while making clear that we would remain watchful of transmission levels. What we saw, as we monitored the situation, led us to conclude that to protect the health of our students and faculty members, and ensure the smooth functioning of campus life, masks should return — at least for a while.

We made this decision even though community transmission levels in the District were “low,” according to guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (On Wednesday, the District updated the level to “medium.”) Those guidelines put significant weight on the strain on hospital systems, which remained minimal. But cases are up 54 percent in the District in the past seven days, to 31 per 100,000 residents. That’s worrisome, as is the fact that 190 of our community members tested positive in the week or so after we dropped our mandate; contact tracing showed that some transmission occurred in classrooms or residence halls. We concluded that this surge — while (to date) small compared with the surges during the delta and omicron waves — posed enough of a threat that we should take preventive measures.

Since the return of mandates — in both cities like Philadelphia and institutions like ours — has been controversial, it’s worthwhile exploring why we chose this course of action. We can’t prove one way or another the extent to which lifting the mask mandate, as the highly transmissible BA.2 omicron subvariant was spreading, contributed to these latest cases. But we still think cases matter, and not just when hospitals are strained. While the vaccine very much reduces the probability of severe illness, hospitalization or death, there is still some significant risk, especially to those older than 60 — a cohort that includes many among our faculty.

Yes, some people will need a fourth shot. But most won’t.

Younger people have much less risk, but covid-19 can still derail their semester. Following CDC guidance, we ask that people who test positive isolate and, if symptom-free on the fifth day, take an antigen test then. That still means an average isolation time of seven days (since some people are still ill on the fifth day, or they test positive). That is seven days of misery, especially for a 19-year old! Isolation also takes students away from the classroom and other activities that are the bedrock of the experience that we are trying to create through in-person instruction. When professors have to isolate because they are sick, that takes a similar toll on both them and community life.

We are cognizant of the history of the virus. D.C. lifted a previous mask mandate on Nov. 22. Unfortunately, that’s around the same time that the tremendous omicron surge began (and coincided with the end of the semester, when college students have many social activities). An enormous number of covid-19 cases, 369 between Thanksgiving and Dec. 15, completely swamped our isolation capacity. (We had to make use of space in hotel rooms as well as designated residence halls.) On Dec. 15, we had to ask students to go home early, for winter break, and ask faculty to switch many final exams to virtual. Our professors did a great job, but the situation created a lot of extra work. No one wants to see similar disruptions this spring.

Why I’m stocking up on masks and tests

We are also concerned about community members who have underlying conditions that make them much more susceptible to the coronavirus — everyone from chemotherapy patients to people with more general immunodeficiencies. We want to keep cases down to protect them.

There is a lot to be said for learning to “live with covid” — an argument often made by opponents of mask mandates. But this is still a highly unpredictable virus that continues to evolve new variants. And using nonpharmaceutical measures like masking should be considered part of what it means to live with the coronavirus. Rather than wait for our isolation beds to fill up, rather than watch more students endure the loneliness of isolation — and rather than wait for a tragic death in our community — we decided to act preemptively against this surge. When case levels are dropping rather than spiking, we will revisit this policy. But returning to a mask mandate was the right call this month.

correction

This article originally said the District of Columbia's mask mandate ended on Nov. 22, 2022 (rather than 2021). It has been updated.

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