By Anastasia Bekker
Elm Staff Writer
As COVID-19 cases have plateaued, epidemiologists anticipate a fourth wave of the virus from new variants — but Washington College is working on ways to keep the campus community safe throughout the coming months.
Even with vaccines distributed nationwide, new strains of the virus are presenting new threats — according to The New York Times, vaccine-resilient strains from Brazil and South Africa decrease the effectiveness of treatment while the variant B.1.1.7. from the United Kingdom is increasing the number of U.S. cases at an exponential rate.
“There could indeed be a very serious situation developing in a matter of months or weeks,” Nicholas Davies, an epidemiologist with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said in The New York Times on Feb. 7. “These may be early signals warranting urgent investigation by public health authorities.”
These new concerns combined with worries about college campuses being dangerous for the spread of COVID-19 have led many colleges to create task forces specifically tackling health and safety protocols.
At WC, the Contingency Planning Group has worked since the summer of 2020 on creating COVID-19 protocols and updating students about the College Alert Level, which considers the number of cases on campus. CPG also observes how other liberal arts colleges, including Franklin & Marshall College, Bryn Mawr College, and Dickinson College, have been responding to the pandemic.
“We look at both the data that we have now [and] we’re always kind of reading about what the epidemiologists are anticipating,” Vice President of Student Affairs Sarah Feyerherm and co-Chair of the CPG, said. “We also do a ton of looking at what other institutions [in the Centennial Conference] are doing and whether it was successful or not, especially institutions that are more like us.”
As of March 2, the College Alert Level is Green, meaning that the total number of COVID-19 cases on campus are low, with little to no new cases reported.
According to Dr. Feyerherm, the dedication of the students to following the COVID-19 procedures has played a significant role. “I’ve been really happy with how our students who are here have responded,” she said. “I think [roughly] 95% of students who are supposed to be using Emocha are using it correctly.”
The CPG would be the group to plan for procedures if a fourth wave should hit, and some believe that this is likely.
“I think a fourth wave is definitely a possibility, especially if [states] start lifting their restrictions,” Dr. Mindy Reynolds, chair and associate professor of biology at Washington College and a member of the CPG, said. “People might be letting their guards down a bit more. And if they do that, there’s definitely a chance for a spike.”
Even with the possibility of new strains spreading, vaccinations may lead to a more “normal” college experience in the fall.
“According to surveys which have gone out … I do think a high proportion of the campus, [including] faculty, staff, and students, are very interested in being vaccinated,” Dr. Reynolds said.
Although some strains of COVID-19 are more resistant to vaccines — like the variant that originated in South Africa — Dr. Reynolds said that more vaccination will lead to less variation.
“The vaccine is going to reduce the replication of the virus,” she said. “And if you reduce the replication, you’re going reduce the number of variants and you can reduce spread.”
If more WC students, faculty, and staff receive the vaccine, the College gets closer to herd immunity, upon which a community will be immune to the virus, either because of vaccinations or antibodies from past infections.
While this vaccine information is helpful, it can be difficult to balance confidentiality and COVID-19 procedures, as the College cannot mandate employees to report if they have been vaccinated.
“We’re looking at how data around vaccinations can impact decisions we make, knowing that we’re not going to have full data on everybody,” Dr. Feyerherm said. “For instance, we’re encouraging any employee who has been vaccinated to report that to Health Services, because that way it stays private.”
While vaccines are not yet distributed widely enough to create herd immunity, wearing masks and following social distancing procedures, like keeping a six-foot distance between yourself and others and keeping any gatherings small and well-ventilated, is important — especially with spring break coming up.
“I just hope that college students continue to realize that they’re not immune to this, that this disease, this virus, does not discriminate, and that we just, again, need to be practicing safe policies,” Dr. Reynolds said. “My advice during spring break is take the time to relax, decompress — but don’t travel. Don’t go and congregate in large settings.”
To encourage students to stay safe and refrain from travel, the College permits to students to go to locations in and around Kent County to visit during the four-day weekend, including Eastern Neck Wildlife Refuge and Tuckahoe State Park.
Regarding spring break, according to the CPG, students should only be travelling for emergencies and essential business. If they do have to travel, they are asked to alert the WC Health Services by email and limit contact with others upon their return through additional quarantine.
Although it can be discouraging to not be able to travel during the break, staying safe will improve the chances of having in-person classes in the fall.
“Just be safe, and take care of yourself, and take care of others,” Dr. Reynolds said. “We want to get back to campus and we have to keep making the best choices in order to make sure that’s going to happen.”