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  • Eric Santomauro-Stenzel

How Hamilton Let A COVID-19 Outbreak Occur

The other week, the United States surpassed 900,000 total recorded deaths from the pandemic. A hundred thousand of those deaths occurred between December and the start of February, and at the time of writing the country has averaged ~2,500 deaths a day. Yet Hamilton’s response this semester has permitted the spread of the virus on campus and given students, faculty, and staff few options to truly protect themselves.

Hamilton’s intent was most clear on January 13th when the chair of the COVID-19 Task Force, Vice President for Administration & Finance Karen Leach, announced to the community that, “Our goal is not to eliminate Omicron from campus—that is not feasible.” She goes on to say that the College aims to, “manage the surge in a way that will keep everyone safe while providing the fullest and richest residential educational experience possible.” Her use of “everyone” here is revealing. While Leach was quick to point out that “cases on campus have generally been asymptomatic or mild”, we must ask mild for who? While the less damaging Omicron variant has been the dominant variant, that does not preclude infections from an original strain or the more dangerous Delta variant. More importantly, not all people face the same level of risk and, therefore, the choices the more vulnerable have been faced with are not equally challenging as others, and many of these decisions have been left to the individual to make for themselves without much institutional support. Immunocompromised people and the elderly are still at significantly higher risk of a breakthrough infection (that is, infection despite vaccination) and, for the elderly specifically, face a much higher risk of death. Young children still cannot be vaccinated, and the recent Omicron wave saw heightened infections and deaths for children—which could be a nightmare for the substantial number of Hamilton employees with young children, many of whom did not have the option to stay remote, like those working in the dining halls trafficked by nearly every single student multiple times a day. For these groups, Hamilton’s policies have imposed a greater level of risk without their consent and without much opportunity to opt for more safety.

Moreover, 157 students have tested positive, meaning approximately 1 in every 12 students has been infected by COVID-19 on campus this semester, or ~8%. A further 49 staff/faculty members have been infected, according to the COVID-19 Dashboard. An overwhelming majority of these infections were recorded in the first two weeks of classes. In other words, it is highly likely almost all of us who have been on campus indoors with other people have been exposed to the virus. It is inarguable that for the first two weeks of classes, campus was not in fact “safe” if the highest number of infected community members at one time, by far, has been reached since the start of the pandemic—and especially not safe for “everyone.”

Hamilton tried to have its cake and eat it too: keeping “everyone safe” alongside the “richest residential educational experience possible”. To achieve this unachievable goal, the College made some important policy choices: beginning the semester in Green status, a soft quarantine period for returning students, to permit in-person teaching with the option for professors to go remote for the first three days, requiring a booster shot, requiring submission of negative test result before student arrival, requiring higher quality masks, increasing required testing to twice a week, more grab-and-go options in dining halls, and other more minor changes. Clearly, these changes were not sufficient to prevent widespread infection. But why?

First, despite President Wippman’s insistence in his January 19th email that the “principal risk of COVID transmission occurs in social settings, not the classroom”, COVID-19 does in fact pose a risk in indoor settings with masking. Two people wearing surgical masks (which are one kind of mask Hamilton offers and encourages wearing) in a room, one infected and one not, may only be protected for up to one hour according to research done prior to the much more transmissible Omicron variant’s rise, and most classes at Hamilton are longer than that. Despite that, Hamilton neglected to require all classes to be remote for the first week or two, instead opting to offload its institutional responsibility to protect the “Hamily” on individual professors for the first week, then requiring in-person classes the second week. For students whose professor(s) did not opt to go remote, they faced the choice of either skipping class during syllabus week, meaning they could lose their seat in a class, or putting themselves at risk.

Moreover, Hamilton’s arrival week policy required only a negative rapid test to return and a vaguely-defined “soft quarantine” prior to the first return of a PCR result. Rapid test accuracy varies wildly, with false negatives occurring as much as 42% of the time on asymptomatic positive individuals. In other words, a student who had tested negative on a rapid could then turn up positive the next day on the PCR after interacting with many others, particularly if they live in a suite. The choice to permit rapid testing as adequate is especially confounding when considering the College required, exclusively, a negative PCR test result for the Fall 2020 semester. This problem is amplified by a “soft quarantine” that said students should limit themselves to their dorms and grab food to-go from dining halls. But nobody was checking who had finished their quarantine, and no penalties or incentives were established for abiding by it, even for attending in-person classes. And, unfortunately, I found at times (and still do) it would be impossible to abide by the soft quarantine, as to-go boxes were not always available at dining halls.

Perhaps the most obvious inconsistency between stated aims and practice became clear on February 1st. An email sent to students, strangely from the Student Assembly on behalf of the Health Center rather than from the Health Center or COVID-19 Task Force itself, urged students to submit their proof of being boosted to the Health Center portal because, “the due date is about three weeks past.” Yet, Vice President Leach announced to the whole of the Hamilton community on January 5th that boosters were required no later than January 15th or within 30 days of eligibility. Why, then, was a mass announcement like this necessary? Shouldn’t all students have already submitted their proof of being boosted? How many students explicitly violated the policy set forth requiring a booster, and why did the College permit them to return to campus? An hour and a half later, the COVID-19 Task Force sent an email announcing a move to Blue status and said the College will “enforce the mandate for anyone who is not in full compliance after February 10.” This notice was wedged in the third sentence of the third bullet point of the email and raises more questions. Why was the mandate not already being enforced for people who had been eligible, as previous notices said it would be? Even if this message were only intended for those who had yet to become eligible, which is thus far an unsupported assumption, an email blast being sent rather than targeted emails indicates that students’ eligibility was not being tracked by the College, and therefore students could have skirted this requirement. Enforcement starting February 10th is weeks after the initial surge when the boosters were most necessary.

Many of the pandemic protections Hamilton College said they would put in place were either ineffective or not fully enacted. Still, the College has worked diligently to establish its public image as aggressively confronting the pandemic through regular emails to the campus community, placing pandemic plans as the first item on, and more. The dashboard does not show case trends beyond one week, and therefore omits evidence of previous surges. The Spectator, and of course the Communications and Marketing Office, have yet to publish any stories on this outbreak or even reference it in other pieces. It would seem to be a notable occurrence that 1 in 12 students have been infected within a month at a school where most classes have at least that many students, if not double or triple that for 100 and 200 level courses. Yet someone not currently on campus, like a parent, alumni, or prospective student, would be led to believe that these measures have all been enforced and effective, a perception that could only be challenged if they were to speak to students.

There are many more examples of how Hamilton has sidelined health to return to a “normal” that no longer exists. It is puzzling, though, why Hamilton College made the active choice to create conditions for widespread infection on campus that many will be suffering the consequences of through the chronic, potentially disabling symptoms of Long Covid for months or years to come. What proportion of “everyone” is it acceptable to Hamilton College to experience this? Many options were there to decrease harm with relatively minor, brief compromises to the “rich residential educational experience,” like mandatory remote classes and to-go meals for the first two weeks, requiring negative PCR tests before arrival and only N95/KN95 or better masks, airtight enforcement of the booster requirement, and more. Instead, in the pursuit of a normalcy not seen in almost two years and nowhere on the horizon, Hamilton’s leadership neglectfully went with half measures that contributed to far more infections than necessary for an in-campus return. We must hope and urge for a more adequate response from the administration in future semesters with possible new variants. To do otherwise is to place the well-being of our so-called “Hamily” at risk.

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