When it comes to COVID-19, Furman has charted a sane, evidence-based path between the extremes of paranoid overreaction on one hand and blithe disregard for health on the other. That becomes especially clear when our performance is compared to those of other schools.
Duke University started out the semester by testing its whole student body at least once a week, including vaccinated, asymptomatic students. When the results — which were likely dominated by false positives among the vaccinated — looked bad, they overreacted and imposed an outdoor mask mandate, in apparent ignorance of the overwhelming evidence that the virus almost never spreads outdoors. That overreaction also led to dozens of students who weren’t sick and weren’t spreading the virus spending needless days in quarantine and isolation.
Our larger, public university neighbors at Clemson encouraged but did not mandate vaccines. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they experienced far more COVID than Furman did, with roughly three times as many cases per student (about 0.10 to our 0.03).
Furman’s simple strategy of requiring the vaccine while deploying other measures with precision has worked well. It has kept our community safe, avoided onerous and unnecessary restrictions, and enabled a rather seamless transition back to a campus life that feels much more like 2019 than 2020. But with Delta still dominant and Omicron at hand, now is no time to rest on our laurels. How can Furman build on its pandemic response success heading into 2022?
First, Furman should require all students to get a third dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. Even before Omicron, it was clear that booster shots were the way to go. Pfizer found three doses of their vaccine to be 95% effective when compared to the original two doses — all while Delta was the dominant strain. Now, a preliminary study indicates that three doses of the vaccine raise neutralizing antibodies against Omicron to the same level that two doses did for the original strain. Regardless of what Furman decides, every student should get a booster!
On the administrative side of things, mandating boosters would be a continuation of, rather than a departure from, our current policy. It’s something that peer institutions, including Wake Forest, have already announced, with many more sure to follow. Even though boosters were not mentioned at all in last Friday’s Furman Focused update, we can and should catch up. The university should clarify its policy as soon as possible so that students who haven’t yet gotten their booster can make arrangements to do so over the break.
Second, Furman should drop the mask mandate entirely. Our current masking rules make little sense and reflect the downside of our otherwise-successful “middle path” on COVID policy. The virus is no more likely to spread in the PAC before 4 p.m. than it is after, and it is no more likely to spread in academic buildings than in Trone, the DH, or the dorms. In many contexts, social norms have moved on from the stated rule; few people actually keep their masks on the whole time they are sitting and studying in the library, for example. Students, faculty, and staff are interacting maskless all the time, and the extra layer of protection provided by wearing masks in classrooms really is extra. A fully vaccinated population goes a long way, and our COVID numbers would have looked virtually the same this semester had the mask mandate not been in place.
Of course, students and faculty should continue to feel free to wear masks if and when they choose — and at times, that choice might be recommended and prudent. But for the sake of consistency, the administration ought to change its official guidance. If Omicron ends up necessitating some adjustments, we can cross that bridge when we get to it.
Multiple times this semester, I’ve been thankful for Furman’s pandemic response. Had I been a student at Duke or Clemson, my quality of life would have been markedly worse, for opposite reasons. Going forward, I am eager for Furman to keep up the good work — and in my mind, that means requiring boosters and abandoning masks.