Back to Square One?

Reed’s Covid Response in the Face of the Delta Variant

Once again, the student body at Reed College finds themselves struggling against COVID-19 in a battle for normalcy. A year that was anticipated by many to be a return to form, with old Reed traditions returning and regulations fading, has turned into a confusing mess. Not only has the unanticipated Delta variant thrown a wrench in Reed’s long-term plans, but vaccinations also continue to be a hot-button issue—especially on campus. Last year was focused heavily on staying isolated when possible, which meant classes on Zoom and dozens of instances of contact tracing. While many classes have moved back to in-person instruction, the threat of COVID-19 continues to loom over the college. Reed’s COVID-19 Risk Assessment Group (CRAG) and the Reed administration have been hard at work to perfect their response to the Delta variant and re-opening campus for this academic year in the face of the Delta variant. But has their response been meticulous enough? What specific actions are they taking moving forward? The Quest reached out to the COVID-19 Risk Assessment Group, and they kindly answered our questions. With their insight, we now have an improved idea of the actions the college is taking and the direction they plan to go.

Unfortunately, often Reed’s policy decisions are only half the battle. While effective choices on campus can reduce the threat of COVID-19, without communication their policies wouldn’t be nearly as effective or in line with other institutes of higher-education in Oregon.

Last year, the COVID-19 regulations and policies were significantly more strict. The cause for the loosening of these regulations has been student and faculty vaccination. According to CRAG, “We have an outstanding vaccination rate among our community members. Evidence continues to show that these vaccines are very effective at preventing COVID infection, and even more so at preventing severe illness—in light of the Delta variant.” And while some came to campus not expecting a mask mandate, its effectiveness at preventing COVID infection rivals vaccination. A study published by the CDC in May 2021 reveals that proper masking could lead to COVID infection being reduced by 70% or more. 

On top of masking, Reed continues to conduct surveillance and diagnostic testing in the community. Not only does Reed require any students, faculty, and staff to test once weekly if they are not fully vaccinated, but this year they are also performing supplemental surveillance testing. 330 fully vaccinated community members are randomly selected each week to participate in surveillance testing. This allows CRAG to make estimates about the greater Reed population and the present level of COVID-19 in the community. 

As far as vaccinations go, CRAG said that there are 13 students on campus who have submitted an exemption to the COVID-19 vaccine, which makes up just 0.8% of the total student population on campus. Additionally, Reed continues to assist students and faculty who have not submitted an exemption to get fully vaccinated, with 98% of students and 97% of staff currently vaccinated. The Health and Counseling Center (HCC) has been able to give doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines to unvaccinated or partially vaccinated students. CRAG continues to emphasize the importance of getting vaccinated and sharing vaccination records with staff and faculty.

Unfortunately, often Reed’s policy decisions are only half the battle. While effective choices on campus can reduce the threat of COVID-19, without communication their policies wouldn’t be nearly as effective or in line with other institutes of higher-education in Oregon. While CRAG has been in close touch with Multnomah County and Oregon’s public health agencies, the top-down approach this year has been much more self-driven. As opposed to last year—where institutes of higher-education were given hardline direct policy—this year, colleges have been asked to evaluate their individual situations in order to make the best decisions about operations. This means a school with a low vaccination rate may have very different policies than one with a high vaccination rate. That being said, this autonomy can lead to Reed having to make the large policy decisions. Reed makes all policy decisions with the guidance and recommendations of public health partners—and it often must go above and beyond those recommendations to apply them to the context of our specific situation.

Along with communication looking a little different this year, CRAG faces the ongoing threat of the Delta variant. They argue that the thorough regulations that Reed is taking on this year sufficiently protect the community from the Delta variant, though it’s impossible to eliminate the risk completely. And while they have no plans to change policy at this time in response to the rising Delta variant cases, they continue to stay vigilant and monitor the community with plans to act accordingly in the event of a surge of cases. Finally, CRAG recommends remaining invested in the core building blocks of Reed’s response policy: vaccination, masking, and reacting to symptoms of exposure. Additionally, clear communication and creating a space where individuals are comfortable enough to speak up continue to be critical in not only the battle against COVID-19 but also the battle against the stress of the pandemic as a whole.

Overall, much of Reed’s plan looks and “feels” similar to last year. Of course, the feeling of being back in a real classroom and surrounded by your peers instead of digital boxes of their faces continues to remind us that we’re hopefully past the worst of it. In those moments, it’s important to remember that COVID-19 is not a natural disaster that will pass without action—it takes the work of a competent response team and an entire community, enthusiastic to act, to get Noize Parade, O-Week, Hvmplay, and a dozen other Reed traditions back. Hopefully by this time next year, COVID-19 at Reed will be just a memory. And if it’s not, then it’s all the more important to pay attention to the policies and regulations we put in place now.

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