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Why are we still wearing masks on campus? It’s time for Duke to start moving on.

guest column

It’s been a little over a month since the CDC provided the updated guidance that fully vaccinated individuals only need to wear a mask and socially distance in crowded public settings, and are otherwise safe without a mask. On May 14th, a day after this federal update, North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper—who has taken a “data-driven approach” and has been “guided by the science in making decisions” throughout the entirety of the pandemic—lifted the indoor mask mandate for all non-crowded settings, as well as mass gathering limits and social distancing requirements. 

I am a fully vaccinated individual who has had COVID-19. I’ve been thoroughly enjoying a return to normalcy outside of the Duke bubble without wearing my mask or social distancing since this guidance came out, just like how I (along with every other American) slapped a mask on my face in April 2020 when the CDC suggested the benefits of universal masking to prevent the spread of the virus. This is because I trust the CDC and I have common sense. 

So, you might imagine my surprise when I walked inside a campus building earlier this week after not having been on campus in a while and was told that I was required to wear a face covering. I don’t even carry one with me anymore—why would I? I am fully vaccinated. My local and national public health officials (as well as my president) have told me that there is no need for me to wear a mask unless I am in a crowded indoor setting – which is not a reasonable description of any building on campus right now. Total COVID cases and hospitalizations in North Carolina continue to decline daily. At this point, one could argue that wearing a mask targets you as an unvaccinated individual, someone far more dangerous than a fully vaccinated individual with no mask. 

As University officials wrote in email after email about our school’s strict pandemic policies throughout the course of the year, they’re simply “following the science.” The Duke Compact website touts the CDC guidance from November 2020 about the efficacy of cloth masking. It’s now June 2021, and more than a month has passed since the science has been updated and we have been assured that there is no need for those who are fully vaccinated to wear a mask. Why, then, hasn’t Duke updated its own policies to mirror that science? 

It’s not like COVID is running rampant through campus. 76% of the university workforce and 9,300 students are vaccinated, and for the week of June 7th, 0 students and 2 faculty/staff members tested positive for the virus for a total positivity rate of 0.05%. If they’re waiting for the numbers to go down before loosening restrictions, they can’t really go down from there. If they want more summer students vaccinated, a smart way to incentivize vaccinations would be to allow those who have been vaccinated to take off their masks during in-person classes, using the vaccine registry to hold students accountable. 

As a Duke student, I am concerned about our school’s blatant disregard of the CDC’s guidance. Schools like Elon University, Georgia Institute of Technology and the Universities of Florida have dropped their indoor mask requirements for vaccinated individuals – what’s stopping Duke? While I’m thankful that as of recently we don’t have to wear masks outdoors (though the data on this issue have been clear for months), I worry about the implications of Duke ignoring both the CDC and Governor Cooper. By objecting to follow the science, as they have explicitly claimed to be doing so many times, Duke fails to place trust in the same public health officials that guided their policies throughout the year, and instead embraces an agenda fueled by fear. The message that an indoor mask requirement sends to summer students is that, even if you are fully vaccinated, you still have a significant chance of spreading COVID-19—which our public health officials have told us is scientifically false. 

It makes no sense to me why Duke would require fully vaccinated students and employees to continue to wear masks indoors. Although Duke has said that it may update some of its COVID policies in early July, I’m not entirely sure that they will. Even if they do, it would be an unreasonably delayed response. The University should listen to the CDC and give vaccinated individuals the option of whether we want to wear a mask – my guess is that most vaccinated students would still wear one, as many are already continuing to do outdoors even. What we need right now as a Duke community is to trust our public health officials and begin migrating towards a sense of normalcy as we approach the fall semester. 

While I’m hopeful that Duke will decide that it’s time to start following the science again in the fall (especially since we are all required to be vaccinated), I’m weary of the COVID-19 policies that the administration may be unwilling to let go of. After having an unusual amount of control over us this year, I’m not so sure they’re going to be quite ready to give it all up. If they aren’t, though, they’ll have to come up with something other than science to justify their authoritarian rules, because the science is clear at this point. That is, of course, unless the University pumps out some falsified data, which it does have experience in

It’s time for Duke to give its student body a more accurate reflection of reality and stop using fear as a control tactic. America is moving on from the pandemania, and Duke should too.

Will Hayes, Jr. is a Trinity junior. 


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