My big concern with Wellesley College’s pandemic policy is simple: to put in place this many COVID-19 restrictions at a time when multiple vaccines have been freely available in the United States for nearly a year, and at a time when the campus is nearly 100% vaccinated and boosted, is inconsistent with the idea that vaccines work — despite all evidence pointing to the fact that vaccines do, indeed, work.
Let’s look at the evidence. Around 80% of the adult population in the US is vaccinated. According to the New York Times, as far as the 18-49 age group is concerned, the rate of COVID-19 death is 0.9 per 100,000 people for the unvaccinated and 0.03 for the vaccinated. “With the addition of a booster,” says the article, “deaths were too low to measure.” Notably, this is the age group that the vast majority of students at Wellesley fall into, and that many faculty and staff fall into as well.
And children? Countries like Sweden, Finland and Norway are not vaccinating kids even in the group for which the vaccine is approved. Massachusetts ended its mask mandate as of February 28, 2022. So while children have a lower vaccination rate (just over half of the 5-11 age group is vaccinated in Mass., as compared to 31% nationally), and while the 0-5 age is unable to get vaccinated, children are at more risk of hospitalization and death from the flu than they are from COVID-19 (there were 1.8 deaths per 100,000 children from the flu in 2019 for children ages 0-4; 0.3 deaths per 100,000 children from the flu in 2019 for children ages 5-17; and finally, 0.2 deaths per 100,000 children from COVID-19).
What about older age groups? The New York Times, once again, states that for adults ages 50-64, 73 unvaccinated adults per 100,000 people were hospitalized. The good news is that after being fully vaccinated, nine per 100,000 were hospitalized, and after a booster shot, two per 100,000 were hospitalized. The death rate went from 8.26 per 100,000 people for the unvaccinated to 0.4 per 100,000 people for the vaccinated and fell to 0.1 per 100,000 people for the boosted. As for senior citizens, who have been most at risk since the onset of COVID-19, the hospitalization rate for unvaccinated adults above 65 was 246 per 100,000 people, which dropped to 27.4 per 100,000 among people who were twice vaccinated and to 4.9 among those who were vaccinated and boosted. The death rate for that age group follows the same pattern: 44 per 100,000 unvaccinated adults 65 and older dropped to 3.6 per 100,000 among the twice vaccinated and to 0.5 per 100,000 among the boosted.
In Massachusetts, 99.8% of the over-65 population is fully vaccinated, and 83.1% of the 18-64 population is fully vaccinated. Overall, Massachusetts has the second highest vaccination rate in the US, behind only Vermont, which has one-tenth the population. Cases in Massachusetts and nationwide have been plummeting since the omicron peak.
That’s a lot of numbers, but they point to the same conclusion: for those most at risk, vaccines work, and boosters work, too, which is why the College’s current restrictions make no sense in light of the data. We are in a fundamentally different place today than we were pre-vaccine, and yet we are not acting like it — or rather, those in charge of making the decisions at Wellesley (and in the various places that have taken similar approaches) are not acting like it.
No vaccine is 100% effective: not for COVID-19, not for the flu, not for any other disease. We take risks every time we cross the street, every time we walk through the snow on a cold winter’s day, every time we drive. (As for that last one: there were 11.0 deaths per every 100,000 people in the US in 2019.) This is all to say that we were not living risk-free lives in 2019, and although it is 2022 and we are masked, boosted and tested twice a week on this campus, we are not living risk-free lives today. At the same time, even if we face some risk from COVID-19 today, it is much, much smaller than it was two years ago, thanks to vaccines and treatments and knowing more about the disease in February 2022 than we did in February 2020. This is a good thing, and it should be celebrated. It should also make us question what the purpose is, exactly, of requiring medical-grade surgical masks, banning guests in our dorm rooms and making out-of-state travel contingent on PCR testing, all while we are being tested twice weekly anyway. What are these College-wide policies doing, exactly, that vaccines can’t, or haven’t? It seems to be an extraordinary act of hubris to suggest that asymptomatic students getting PCR-tested after driving 45 minutes out to Nashua, NH are going to control the severity of a respiratory disease more than mass vaccination already has.
People all over look to see what the institutions — especially the colleges and the universities — around them are doing. When they see that even vaccination isn’t allowing people to move on with their lives, they — vaccinated or not — wrongly conclude that the vaccines don’t work and lose trust not only in public health institutions like the CDC, but in any institutions at all. (Indeed, according to survey evidence, social trust in the US is at an all time low.) That is all to say, the College is part of a bigger ecosystem: while Wellesley is not unique in its problems, it is nevertheless accountable for them. And so, it is nothing short of the College’s responsibility to make reasoned decisions that are consistent with scientific, statistical evidence in a post-vaccine world (as was its responsibility in a pre-vaccine world). The College has abdicated this responsibility this academic year, instead choosing a path of total risk aversion that is doomed and futile from the get-go because there is no situation that is zero risk, whether we want to admit it or not.
Wellesley’s current rules, it should be noted, are not zero-risk either. Social isolation is unnatural, and while some degree of social isolation made sense before any vaccines or treatment were available during what has been a deadly, disruptive and tragic pandemic, to continue this sort of unnatural living well after vaccines and treatments have been available creates a feeling that the pandemic will never end, and neither will the hopelessness nor the hopelessness. We are being told that faces are just holes for eating and drinking and that the people around us are not our neighbors, but walking disease vectors who are guilty of illness until proven innocent. Prolonging isolation and abnormalcy while providing zero off-ramps puts community members at risk of developing anxiety and depression. Any so-called public health policy that does not acknowledge mental health cannot be said to be about the public, and it cannot be said to be about health.
These risks to emotional and mental well-being, while perhaps dormant today, are going to be fully realized in the years to come, especially when the current generation of children and teenagers grows up. The social collapse that COVID-19 restrictions have caused in many places, and especially in younger groups, is not popular to talk about in circles like ours, as has been made clear to me every time I’ve criticized the status quo. Believe me, I have no incentive to say anything that I am saying here: I wouldn’t have written a word of this if I did not view the current COVID-19 restrictions in many parts of the country as a moral catastrophe, and if I did not feel absolutely certain that they will, in the future, be treated widely as a moral catastrophe. By refusing to manage risk properly and to consider the very real trade-offs involved with COVID-19 policies, Wellesley — along with the various other schools, colleges, states and organizations that are continuing to make similar, restrictive decisions — is currently hemorrhaging its own long-term credibility.
Things don’t have to be this way, though. It’s not too late for the College to reverse course and to do the right thing: ease up on the restrictions, especially as Anthony Fauci himself is now saying that various parts of the country and of the world need to “get their life back” and “[inch] towards” normalcy. Moreover, the CDC is now designating low, medium and high-risk places: Norfolk County, Mass., in which Wellesley College is located, is designated a low-risk place where individuals are told, according to the CDC’s latest guidance, “Wear a mask based on your personal preference, informed by your personal level of risk.”
At the very least, what we need at Wellesley College is a transparent off-ramp. At what point can we start to go out of state without having the College track our every move? At what point can we begin to have guests over again? At what point can we begin to take masks off? Any college interested in building trust rather than destroying it needs to provide clear answers to these questions, even if the answer to each question is “in perpetuity” because at least we will then know where we stand. As someone who is very much invested in Wellesley College and loves the place dearly, I certainly hope administrators consider what message they are sending through their current actions and reevaluate their policies in the process.