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Notes on SAIC’s updated mask policy

A student’s reaction to the email sent by the school administration regarding the changes in mask policy.

By Featured, SAIC, Uncategorized

Dear SAIC Community,

Thank you for your continued diligence in following SAIC’s COVID-19 protocols. Though it’s been nearly three years since the pandemic began, navigating these mitigation efforts can still be a challenge, and we’re grateful for the care you’ve shown for one another and the entire School community.

This paragraph is not objectionable in and of itself,  but the use of the word “challenge” here sets up later issues in wording. 

 

Illustration by Ceilidh (kale) Birkhahn

 

Throughout the pandemic, we have continuously monitored COVID-19 data and reviewed our campus policies in consultation with public health expert Dr. Terri Rebmann. Recently, Dr. Rebmann noted that while Saint Louis University did not require masks this past fall, only a small percentage of their community cases were traced to classroom transmission. The vast majority of infections occurred off campus. This evidence, which correlates with what we’ve seen in areas of SAIC’s campus where masks have not been required, informed our decision to update our Make Together protocols.

The email here posits that the “vast majority” of cases at Saint Louis University occurred off-campus; reading this paragraph and watching the video, it becomes clearer that the cases were not traced to on-campus causes. This does not necessarily mean that they did not originate on campus, only that they could not be traced there. 

For the winter term, we will continue to require masks in our instructional spaces. However, at the start of the spring term—on January 26—individuals may continue to wear masks, though they will no longer be required in any on-campus space except at the Wellness Center. At this point in the pandemic, we’ve all adopted mitigation strategies that work best for us individually, so if you feel more comfortable wearing your mask on campus, you are fully encouraged to continue this practice. If you choose to wear a mask, a tight-fitting surgical mask, N95, or KN95 will offer the best protection. Such masks provide good protection even when those around you are unmasked. Please note that masks will not be available at security desks beginning in the spring term.

The consistent use of community — SAIC community, School community— clashes here with the sudden shift of responsibility onto the individual. Not included anywhere in the email is this addendum, which can only be found by navigating to a hidden page using the small sidebar on the Make Together site:

“As we continue to take care of one another, please remember that there are members of our community who are vulnerable to a severe infection or who live with or are caring for a vulnerable loved one. Please consider showing care for the well-being of others by wearing a face mask when you are interacting with someone who is wearing a mask.”

Simply placing the above into the campus-wide message would have tempered some of the upset responses seen in the aftermath of the mask mandate removal. It is unlikely that most busy students, faculty, and staff would take the time to trawl SAIC’s website for long enough to notice this page. 

Likewise, it would go a long way toward seeing support and acknowledgment offered to immunocompromised or otherwise at-risk community members. As it stands, the email neglects to mention them altogether.

As a reminder, one of the most effective ways to protect yourself and others from illness is to stay up-to-date on your vaccinations for both COVID-19 and the flu. COVID-19 vaccines will continue to be required for all students, staff, and faculty.

While vaccination is one of the most effective ways to protect oneself from illness, it works best in tandem with other strategies; masking, distancing and isolating when actively sick. The vaccine protects the individual, but reduces transmission; while the infected or asymptomatic person may not be a super-spreader, they can still pass COVID-19 on to their close contacts.

For more information on this policy and the data that informed it, please watch the following webinar from Dr. Rebmann.

[Video of Dr. Rebmann]

 

Below are some quotes pulled from the informational video:

“[P]reliminary data on BQ 1 and BQ 1.1 indicates that both of these new subvariants [of COVID-17 Omicron] are able to evade…natural immunity […] if you have previous infection and vaccine-induced immunity including the new bivalent booster.”

The message here appears to be that COVID will be mild for young, perfectly healthy people, but they will still be able to contract and carry it. In other words, being vaccinated still does not stop you from being ill or contagious; it reduces the severity of symptoms and prevents hospitalization.

“[T]his is the worst flu outbreak that we’ve seen in the past decade. It started early, it’s particularly harsh this year, and it’s causing some health care surges across the United States. So between COVID-19 and flu hitting at the same time […], there are individuals that are co-infected.”

This is a strange data point to include in this announcement, which seems to have the overarching message that health protocols have moved past masking. Perhaps particularly as influenza is another virus that causes painful symptoms in the lungs and throat, and is a highly contagious respiratory illness—characteristics that make it less likely to be transmitted between masked individuals.

“[A]t this point in the pandemic, […] I don’t know of a single university that continues to have a mask mandate in place at this time…”

F Newsmagazine listed some schools which continue to have mask mandates in a previous article: Rhode Island College of Design, Columbia College Chicago, Pratt Institute, San Jose State, and Massachusetts College of  Art and Design.

“[T]he vast majority of universities have moved towards individuals taking personal responsibility for protecting themselves against severe illness. So that means staying up to date on vaccination and then choosing to wear a mask or a respirator when you’re in public places with others.”

Illustration by Ceilidh (kale) Birkhahn

 

The information here seems to be saying that any individual who wants to protect themselves against “severe illness” will be fully vaccinated and wear some form of face covering. Odd to include here—ironically for an announcement removing the mask policy, its presented facts seem to support continued masking.

We will continue to consult with Dr. Rebmann and monitor local trends, making adjustments as warranted, including by reinstating required masking if the need arises. As always, the most up-to-date information on our COVID-19 policies can be found at saic.edu/maketogether.

Sincerely,

Martin Berger

Provost and Senior Vice President of Academic Affairs

Tom Buechele

Vice President for Campus Operations

John Pack

Executive Director of Campus Security

 

The use of the phrase “if the need arises” casts this decision into confusion. Wasn’t the mandate supposedly removed for lowered caseload? As a matter of fact, that does not appear to be a deciding factor, or at least not one shown here. The only cited reason is lowered transmission on campus, not lower caseload; while the numbers may have dropped, it is never mentioned outright. 

So: what would constitute a “need arising”? Would it be caseload in the SAIC Community, or only if the city of Chicago reinstates its mask mandate? 

The Make Together: Update On Mask Policy email is ineffective at providing a clear message, encouraging continued masking where necessary, and even simply supporting its own main points. It includes only partial information and links to contradicting or outdated information. The choice to be vague and make generalized statements such as “the vast majority of infections” and “the vast majority of universities” suggests an element of guesswork reminiscent of a student’s under-researched essay — compounded by the fact that other statements (“I don’t know of a single university…”) show a distinct lack of even cursory searching. All together, it paints a picture of apathy, rather than the carefully-considered decision community health deserves.

SAIC’s online Make Together webpage no longer contradicts itself in terms of mask mandate, as it did up until the first week of February. The Contact Tracing webpage still claims that students identified as “close contacts” can ask for a surgical mask at campus security desks —something discontinued at the very start of the semester.

The linked SAIC COVID-19 dashboard received its last update on March 8th; 17 total positive cases, 12 students and 5 employees, all within the previous two weeks. Only 2 out of that total— one student and one employee — are in isolation.

The COVID-19 dashboard illustrates its data as seen above, including for its semester summaries, which does not help visualize the totals or overall data trends. 

Below, I’ve graphed the student cases, staff-slash-employee cases, and the average caseload per month (of the semester).

 

Illustration by Ceilidh (kale) Birkhahn

The graph above uses exclusively data from the Make Together dashboard, which is an issue for several reasons:

  • At the top of the Make Together page, it reads: “[t]hese figures include only cases that have been reported to SAIC among community members who are working or living on campus.” This means that all data was collected by voluntary reporting, which contributes to a commonly known sampling bias.
  • Visitor cases are not included, since the numbers were so low.
  • There is no data publicly available about how many people were on campus at these times.
  • This data cannot reflect the numbers of infectious but asymptomatic cases; by definition, people need to notice before they can self-report.
  • As Dr. Rebmann suggested, it’s possible that many of these cases came from off-campus activity. However, with COVID-19 having unpredictable onset, effects, and symptoms that differ between individuals, no real conclusions can be drawn.

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