The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly of Swarthmore’s COVID-19 Policy

We’re entering a new phase of the pandemic. We’re always entering a new phase of the pandemic, to the point that I’m getting sick of the phrase “new phase of the pandemic.” As a matter of fact, we should probably retire that terminology, because this thing is going to stick around for a while. Nobody says “we’re entering a new phase of the weather” when fall rolls around and it starts getting colder. If we have to define this as a new phase of the pandemic, though, let’s make it a phase in which we shift our thinking. Moderately panicked, shut-everything-down reactions were probably to our benefit in March 2020 when we didn’t know what we were up against. A totalizing fear of any possible viral transmission may have been helpful for a while, at least until our vulnerable populations had access to vaccines. Now, though, we need to shift into a different mode, where we balance the risk of COVID-19 with the myriad of other risks and benefits present in our lives. 

I’m not trying to downplay things here, and I acknowledge that everyone has different risk tolerances — for example, you can make a reasonable argument either for or against Swarthmore’s indoor mask mandate, depending on how you weigh the risks and benefits. But there are a few policies at Swarthmore that, from a scientific standpoint, are good, bad, or ugly regardless of your personal feelings on COVID-19 risk. So, without further ado:

The Good: Vaccine Mandates. Swarthmore’s vaccine mandate is the #1 most important contributor to low transmission rates on campus and low risk in the case of an outbreak. The campus vaccination rate is currently 96% among students per an email from the college (which will rise to over 99% once a few students complete their dose sequence) and 99% among faculty and staff. You are all perfectly aware that the vaccines massively reduce infection, transmission, severe disease, and death, so I won’t belabor the point here.

Our 99% vaccination rate has helped Swarthmore build an extremely strong defense against outbreaks even before other measures. Swarthmore’s 0.2% positivity rate over the past two weeks among students is excellent proof of this. (Some other institutions are even lower, such as Yale with an undergraduate positivity rate of 0.02%. Delaware County at large has a positivity rate of 7% as of this writing.) There’s also much more to be said regarding false-positive PCR results, especially in vaccinated people; PCR tests are very sensitive and sometimes pick up fragments of virus that can’t cause infection. However, that’s a topic for another day. No matter how you slice it, vaccines are what’s letting us have a semblance of a normal semester.

The Bad: No Distinction Between Indoor and Outdoor Environments. We’ve known for a very long time now that COVID-19 spreads in indoor spaces, not outdoor ones. A paper published on April 7, 2020, reviewed 7,324 contact-traced cases in China from January 2020 and found exactly one case linked to outdoor transmission. Yet for the entirety of last year, college guidelines strictly required outdoor masking, even while walking through the Crum over a thousand feet away from anyone. (It’s true that the public at large was not sufficiently informed on the difference between indoors and outdoors until CDC guidelines picked up on this fact in mid-April 2021, and even that guidance was hedging its bets more than necessary. A place like Swarthmore, however, with plenty of professors and epidemiologists close at hand, should have been able to pick this up even without guidance from a government agency.) 

At the very least, though, wearing masks outside last year didn’t make transmission worse. The real problem with the lack of differentiation between outdoor and indoor regulation shows up in the cancellation of outdoor events such as Fall Formal and the near-complete prohibition on non-distanced outdoor gatherings last academic year. While Swarthmore has been able to maintain low rates of infection throughout the pandemic, it certainly hasn’t been thanks to our gathering policies — harsh restrictions on outdoor parties probably caused more COVID-19 cases than they prevented.

Let’s start with the elephant in the room: the cancellation of Fall Formal makes no sense. It’s inconsistent with everything we know about the safety of outdoor gatherings, even before considering that almost every single attendee would be fully vaccinated. Consider Chicago’s Lollapalooza: 385,000 people attended a mostly outdoor music festival in August which required vaccines or a negative test. Only 203 attendees tested positive for COVID-19 in the next two weeks, for an infection rate of 0.05%. If literally everyone at Swarthmore showed up to a Fall Formal, and we saw a similar infection rate, we’d expect about 0.8 COVID-19 cases. (Also, Lollapalooza only had about a 90% vaccination rate; ours is higher, and we’d most likely expect even fewer cases as a result.) It’s hard to argue that Fall Formal would have made any difference in the current campus case count, which remains in the low single digits. The decision seems to have been based mostly on a reflexive “the big number on the CDC tracker went up, and that’s scary, so let’s close some things down.” 

In fact, overly risk-averse policies on outdoor events can actually make matters worse. Last year’s blanket ban on gatherings certainly didn’t put a stop to parties. What did happen was parties only happened where they were less likely to be caught — indoors, in cramped and poorly-ventilated dorm rooms. Sanctioning outdoor events — as appears to be happening this semester — can help things happen safely. On the other hand, breaking up (safe) outdoor parties because they exceed an arbitrary attendance limit is completely unhelpful and just causes the partygoers to move indoors. The email that followed — specifically, calling out shared containers as behavior that “dramatically increases the risk of transmitting the virus” — didn’t make much sense either. It’s unclear how sharing containers would increase transmission, considering that surfaces are almost a non-factor in COVID-19 spread. While it’s a minor thing, it’s potentially a sign that misunderstandings about transmission risk run deep within the campus administration.

The Ugly: Plexiglass Shielding. I’m generally not a party person, so my annoyance at Swarthmore’s gathering rules is motivated more by an abstract distaste for people being wrong about things. This, however, is personal. Nothing in the college’s COVID-19 policies annoys me more on a concrete level than the shields at Sharples, Essie’s, and Sci. The original idea behind these barriers was to stop ballistic droplets that can be emitted from the mouth when speaking, coughing, and so on, back when we thought that COVID-19 spread mostly through those mechanisms. The science, however, has moved on; we know that the real driver of spread, and especially of super-spreader events, is aerosol transmission. Instead of large droplets that either fall to the ground or hit something, COVID-19 mostly spreads via small particles carried on air currents that can float in a room for hours. In that situation, a Plexiglass shield is about as effective as jumping into a pool while holding a piece of cardboard in front of your face.

In fact, there’s decent evidence that these shields make COVID-19 transmission worse. For starters, as I’m sure anyone who’s ordered at Essie’s is familiar with, the shields muffle sound, and most people end up shouting (which is bad, from a transmission standpoint) and/or leaning underneath (which makes the shield completely pointless!). Even more importantly, these shields block the natural airflow of a space and create spots of dead air where the virus can linger instead of being drawn out through building ventilation systems. In fact, a study from Johns Hopkins found that usage of plexiglass shields in schools was associated with a slightly increased rate of COVID-19 transmission. I want to stress that this is a very small effect and could just be noise — there’s no need to run away screaming any time you see a transparent divider, especially if you’re vaccinated — but why make our lives worse without any conceivable benefit?

So there you have it: the good, the bad, and the ugly. But I’m really just scratching the surface here, even more than usual. Especially when it comes to COVID-19 and public health, there are no clear answers to a lot of scientific questions, and even if there were, so much of our responses aren’t actually about the science — rather, it’s about our personal values, preferences, and ideals. Deciding what Swarthmore and the world are going to look like isn’t just about “following the science.” Ideally we would look at what science tells us, yes — but good policies require thinking from every single angle, and we can be working from the same facts and come to very different conclusions even before you throw cognitive bias or misinformation into the mix. We here at Swarthmore have been a little bit too content with blindly listening to authority figures about the pandemic lately for my liking; I hope this piece starts some kind of conversation on what we’re really comfortable with as a community.

Zachary Robinson

Zack Robinson '24 is a sophomore from Portland, Oregon, studying computer science and English literature. He enjoys tinkering with technology, epeé fencing, and diving into random Wikipedia rabbit holes.

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