Controversial COVID policy

Isolating with a positive roommate

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Photo by Ayden Levine '23. Marissa Scharf '24 and Sam Pfeffer '24 demonstrate COVID safety with a smile (behind their masks!)

As of Sept. 13, 2022, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) website states, “If you test positive for COVID-19, stay home for at least five days and isolate from others in your home.” In direct contradiction, Muhlenberg’s COVID policy states, “Most residential students who test positive for COVID will remain in their assigned on-campus residence for the duration of their required isolation period, unless their roommate (or suitemate) indicates that they are at high risk for severe COVID symptoms… Students isolating in their residence will be required to follow CDC guidelines and practices that reduce exposure to their roommates and others.”

These guidelines have been both troubling and confusing for students on campus, many of whom are testing positive. Students who are positive for COVID and living in a traditional double room with a roommate are expected to stay in that room, even if their roommate tests negative. It’s a policy which students such as Paige Weisburg ‘22 say, “Puts the whole campus at risk and it’s also terrifying.”

“[this policy] Puts the whole campus at risk and it’s also terrifying.”

Dean of Students Allison Williams says, “Better understanding of the COVID-19 virus, vaccinations and changes that have occurred due to the variants have allowed us to adjust our response to COVID-19. We have worked closely with the Department of Health, our local infectious disease experts, and the American College Health Association to make our decisions.”

The main justification for keeping a positive roommate in the same room as one who has yet to be positive, as explained by Williams, “[is] based on what we know about the rapid transmission rate of the current omicron variant. Roommates of positive students may likely test positive also and have already been exposed at the point at which a student is testing positive.”

However, the CDC website states, “You are likely most infectious during these first five days.” Therefore, if a ‘Berg student tests positive on day two, there is still a chance they may infect their roommate. 

Ariana Handelman ‘25 says she feels, “Absolutely disgusted [at] the fact that you are expected to and forced to sleep in the same room as an actively COVID-positive person if you are roommates.”

Additionally, given that there is no method to reinforce existing guidelines when it comes to being a close-contact for COVID, they often go ignored. Handelman shares, “People who know they are close contacts are maybe testing once and determining that they are fine to walk around without a mask.”

“People who know they are close contacts are maybe testing once and determining that they are fine to walk around without a mask.”

In addition to these feelings of frustration, many students have also expressed a desire for the return of a COVID dashboard on campus. Williams explained the College’s reasoning for not having one saying, “The purpose of the COVID-19 dashboard was to provide accurate data on COVID infection rates and test positivity rates on our campus. The data was most useful when the College was performing regular surveillance testing (meaning mandatory testing of asymptomatic students) and when testing was primarily performed by the College. Two major developments occurred since the dashboard’s inception that has led the College to discontinue its use: the widespread availability of over-the-counter antigen tests and the change to testing symptomatic individuals only. Any current data that the College would report on its dashboard may not be an accurate reflection of what is actually occurring in our community, as we would now be relying heavily on self report and also some with symptoms may choose not to test (which we strongly discourage).”

However, students have still expressed frustration, as some idea of an on-campus positivity rate is better than none. “I’d feel a lot better if the school still kept a public record of case statistics,” says Matan Kogen ‘23. The sentiment was echoed by Grace Nyberg ‘23, “I really want the dashboard back. It also just helps clear up confusion.”

College leadership has repeatedly expressed that there will be situations which may need to be handled on a case-by-case basis. Williams says, “Recognizing the need to support our most vulnerable students who have a medical condition causing them to be [at] higher risk for severe COVID infection, there continues to be the option for relocation during the isolation period to decrease the risk of transmission to these students.” 

Williams shared that high-risk conditions include “cancer, chronic kidney disease, chronic liver disease, chronic lung disease, diabetes, heart conditions, immunocompromised, sickle cell disease and transplants. This list is not exhaustive and does not include all possible conditions that would put students in a higher risk category.”  

She also elaborated on what exactly the available isolation spaces are, “We have a limited number of spaces available on campus as needed for isolation purposes. So those spaces are available at no additional cost to the student. If a student’s request is not approved for a move to a different isolation space, and they do not wish to remain in their room based on personal preference, they may go home or go off campus on their own.”

Annaliese Collins ‘23, a public health major and one of the interns for Peer Health Advocates at Muhlenberg shared their opinion on the policy. “I am very disappointed with the decisions made by the College surrounding the COVID-19 policy… The lack of access to isolation housing, the absence of the dashboard, and the general hostility towards mask-required spaces is the perfect storm for a surge in cases and a fading trust in the capabilities of the College. If we can’t trust the College to handle a pandemic that has been going on since 2020, how do we trust their decision-making in the next one? How do we trust them if monkeypox makes its way to campus?”

The College and its students seem to be on vastly different pages when it comes to addressing the ongoing pandemic, and it may behoove both parties to work together to prevent the spread. Collins says, “public health isn’t about the individual, it’s about the community.”

Controversial COVID policy: Isolating with a positive roommate

Maryn Pryor ‘23 and Laura Fisher ‘23, two roommates in a double, share their frustration in regards to the College’s mishandling of their return to campus. Fisher, who is from Seattle, Washington, contracted COVID-19 on a Muhlenberg class trip to Maine. 

Fisher was still testing positive for COVID-19 on the day she was supposed to move in. Pryor, who is from California, explains, “Friday comes around and we’re both supposed to move in and both calling Housing and the Health Center trying to figure out some way that the two of us don’t have to stay in the same room while she has COVID and we have pre-orientation starting on Sunday. Neither of us have anywhere else to go. Housing keeps saying to talk to the Health Center and the Health Center keeps saying to talk to housing and then they both say the policy is to let us both move into the double but that’s all they can do. This is frustrating because all of the other bedrooms [in the Village] are locked so, even though our roommates in the singles are fine with one of us staying in their rooms, housing is telling us we can’t because they haven’t moved in yet.”

Furthermore, when Fisher attempted to move into her college housing, she was not allowed to get her key because she was testing positive, even though the College was aware of her COVID-positive status beforehand. It took several attempts for Pryor and Fisher to get permission for Fisher to move in, despite there being no isolation housing provided and no possibility for Fisher to fly home to Seattle. When Fisher and Pryor were allowed to move in, the College still refused to unlock any of the singles in their suite, and they were forced to share the double even though there were safer options easily available. This is a prime example of the College’s inflexibility when it comes to prioritizing the safety of students.

Cydney Wilson ’23 is a Political Science major with a self-design major in Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies and a minor in Africana Studies. Being The Weekly’s editor-in-chief has been one of the greatest joys of her college experience. She enjoys writing about the subjects that make people angry, and hopes that her journalism will inspire change, both on campus and in the world.

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