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Conflicting responses: Stony Brook’s COVID-19 policy should be re-evaluated

A sign put up on Staller steps in order to warn students to wear masks and to remain six feet apart. Fifty-three percent of Americans have been vaccinated. RABIA GURSOY/STATESMAN FILE

Benjamin Joffe is a sophomore political science major.

The United States’ path towards returning to post COVID-19 normalcy has been in a state of limbo for the past several months. Nationwide vaccination efforts have resulted in 53% of Americans being vaccinated

However, vaccination and case rates differ state by state. While New York may have 68% of its population vaccinated, Mississippi only has 48%. Because of this, national reopening efforts have hit a roadblock. 

The state of limbo is caused by the spread of the Delta variant, a variant of COVID-19 that is nearly twice as contagious as the original Alpha variant. The Delta variant now accounts for over 93% of nationwide cases

Universities and employers around the nation are requiring proof of vaccination. Stony Brook is one of these schools, and because of that mandate, 99% of campus residents, 83% of commuters and 68% of employees are vaccinated.  

As an added precaution and as a response to the spread of the Delta variant, SBU guidelines require that all students, regardless of vaccination status, wear masks and socially distance in all campus buildings. 

However, the application of current COVID-19 guidance is often counterintuitive. For instance, current guidelines say that students don’t need to wear masks while they eat. Yet at East and West Side Dining, with both cafeterias serving thousands of students every day, the scene is often congested with maskless students dining in.

If current guidelines are shaped by the assumption that vaccinated students must still abide by COVID-19 protections, then the scenes that unfold at dining halls objectively undermine that assumption. 

While the threat of the Delta variant places pressure on the administration, SBU’s guidance must reflect the most recent scientific data. 

By considering different points of data, such as rates of vaccination on campus, breakthrough cases and vaccination status of hospitalized individuals, one finds that much of Stony Brook’s COVID-19 response is counterproductive and contradictory. 

One of the most important questions to consider first is whether COVID-19 precautions, such as mask and social distancing requirements, are appropriate for a virtually fully vaccinated community. The best factor to gauge this would be looking at breakthrough cases and hospitalizations amongst vaccinated individuals. 

As of Aug. 23, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that of the 171 million vaccinated individuals, 11,050 have been hospitalized or died because of a breakthrough case, a rate of aproximately 0.0065%. Furthermore, 70% of those who were hospitalized with breakthrough cases were over 65 years old. 

There is currently limited data regarding the actual rate of breakthrough cases state-by-state, but current data shows nationwide rates of breakthrough cases being about 0.01%.  

These numbers overwhelmingly show that the chances of breakthrough infection amongst vaccinated individuals are virtually negligible, and confirm what has been known for months: vaccines are highly effective and that it would be wise to translate that fact into policy.  

The issue now may shift to how vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals may transmit COVID-19. While current data is inconclusive, the Delta variant has been shown to have a much higher viral load and therefore could cause a vaccinated individual to spread it to an unvaccinated individual. 

As shown with the previous point, however, the rate of breakthrough infections that would cause this to occur comes about only in 0.0065% of the vaccinated population. 

However, the chances of a vaccinated person with a breakthrough case and then spreading it to another vaccinated person, causing another breakthrough case, is so profoundly low it is likely statistically insignificant. 

The bigger issue to consider is breakthrough cases amongst the vaccinated spreading to the unvaccinated, causing serious infection, but that is outside the relevance of SBU policy since the overwhelming majority of those on campus, both students and faculty, are vaccinated.

Finally, one must consider the leading perpetuating factor of the present increase in Delta variant rates: unvaccinated individuals. While there are outlier cases where individuals may not get vaccinated because of medical or religious reasons, the current unvaccinated population remains unvaccinated overwhelmingly out of choice. 

Compared to vaccinated individuals, hospitalization rates among unvaccinated individuals are six to 31 times higher. Nationwide, 97% of individuals hospitalized with COVID-19 are unvaccinated.

This data, in totality, supports a logical conclusion: the best way to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is vaccination. The goal of national, state and local responses should be to facilitate a return to normalcy by reducing rates of transmission. In order to reach that goal, vaccination must be emphasized above all else. 

It is impossible to reach this goal by simply accommodating those who refuse to protect themselves and their communities by getting vaccinated through continuing practices such as mask and social distancing mandates, especially when it is the unvaccinated who remain the least likely to wear masks.

If the priority of the SBU guidelines is to keep its student body safe, it has taken by far the most significant step in that direction by mandating vaccination for students. To take the next step, SBU must mandate vaccination for all its faculty as well.  

By not having the same standard of mandatory vaccination for its faculty as it does for its students, SBU’s policies risk falling short of taking the steps to create the campus environment safest from COVID-19. 

The fact remains, supported by various points of data, that there is no practical reason a vaccinated individual in a community of vaccinated individuals should be required to wear a mask. 

If Stony Brook fails to re-evaluate its policy on mandates, it would send a message to its student body that regardless of vaccination status, there can be no timeline presented where a return to normalcy is appropriate. 

It is also essential that the student body remains comfortable and confident in their physical safety if masks are no longer mandated. It is important that Stony Brook clearly conveys the effectiveness of vaccines and the incredibly low rates of breakthrough infection. This will allow students to be more confident moving away from masks, especially those who may be immunocompromised or have immunocompromised or unvaccinated families. 

As the semester presses forward, the question must be asked: at what point should we re-evaluate the current guidance laid out to keep students safe while also allowing them to enjoy college to the fullest?

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    Joseph PierceSep 9, 2021 at 12:47 pm

    Two quick factual points: 1) the university policy does require masks but does not require social distancing indoors, and 2) the administration cannot mandate vaccines for employees because that is the purview of the State of New York as part of required union contract negotiations for employees.

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