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Squeezing the COVID bubble

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Any first-year Pratt student can tell you about Newton’s third law: “Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.” Many Trinity students can even relate to this theory through concepts in macroeconomics on money supply, fiscal policy and inflation. Hell, even a Tarheel philosophy major knows that when you squeeze a balloon, the bump just pops out somewhere else.

Sadly, with the recent COVID mitigation policies announced by Duke, it seems the administration hasn’t learned what happens when you squeeze a bubble.

Last year, Duke led the nation in early policies for testing, tracing, social distancing and strong community support for limiting the spread of COVID. At considerable expense, Duke largely preserved its primary educational mission. But in January this year, an amazing thing happened. Our top scientists developed not 1 but 3 highly effective vaccines. As with most vaccines, the goal with the COVID vaccines was to limit severe outcomes – not infections. To save lives – not limit spread. To restore confidence.

And maybe, just maybe return us to normalcy. 

Over the summer, Duke was one of the first colleges in the nation to enact a mandatory vaccine policy for students, employees, and professors. Now with over 98% of students vaccinated, and 92% of employees and professors, we are the envy of the academic community. So much so that over the summer, Duke triumphantly claimed that this fall, they hoped to operate the campus at nearly back to normal conditions. 

The Blue Devils were back baby. (Emphasis on the “were.”)

What a difference one week makes. After an O-week for the ages, we are now staring at a sobering fall of more social distancing, heavy campus restrictions and likely much more virtual learning.

So what went wrong? Did students party too hard? Did we let our guard down? Are we doomed?

No, the answer is simple. Duke just forgot Newton’s Third Law.

For the last 18 months, 18-year-olds have been “squeezed.” We’ve been told “just two more weeks” more times than we can count. We’ve zoomed, spit-tested and self-nasal-probed each and every week. We’ve gotten jabbed twice and dealt with feeling like crap for a few days after each stick. And then two weeks ago for O-week, we arrived to a bustling move-in and hundreds of upper-classmen in neon shirts to welcome us to Duke. To our new normal. After being squeezed so hard for so long, it’s only natural that we wanted to release the pressure.

This week, with Duke’s comprehensive testing program, where every student seems to be tested multiple times per week -- vaccinated or not, symptomatic or not, contact traced or not -- we learned what that one brief week of freedom cost us.

304 undergraduate cases. 

No college in America had that many cases last week or that high of a percentage of positive students. But then again, no college in America is testing fully vaccinated asymptomatic students at the rate that Duke is, or confining fully vaccinated asymptomatic students to their Lancaster Commons solitary confinement cell for 10 days. Other campuses were doing the exact same things we were doing: O-weeks, parties, their own respective Shooters, maybe even more so. But with few symptomatic cases and even fewer real threats to their academic mission, for most of those other colleges, a normal fall still looks possible. But at Duke, we’ve all but lost that possibility for normalcy.

Without debating the merits of Duke’s testing philosophy (We are Duke right? Smart people? Medical experts? Focused on our academic mission?) there are a few things we should learn about what happens when we squeeze the COVID bubble. News flash…it pops out somewhere else.

Squeezing the Greeks

Duke has a problem with Greek Life. So does every other college in America. But by enacting well-meaning policies, meant to ultimately improve the Duke community, it had the VERY predictable outcome of pushing much of the social interaction from on campus to off campus… during a pandemic. Duke just squeezed the problems out of sight, but sadly not out of mind. Can’t host a party in a West Campus dorm section? Go to an off-campus house. Restricted in how many people can attend a house party? Go to Shooters (well, not anymore, but you know what I mean). Squeezing Greek life has pushed most of what constituted Greek life before into all the wrong places -- locations where, inevitably, what goes on off campus will be far worse than what could go on campus. So predictable. And so unnecessary…

Squeezing the Gym Bros and Ballers

Duke students take care of our minds and bodies. Amidst the mental health challenges from COVID, that’s more important now than ever. So there were a few people playing basketball in Wilson without masks. Please, just ask them to put their masks back on. That way they will play basketball masked with people who are 98% vaccinated. Closing the courts and forcing students to go off campus to exercise and compete just squeezes the bubble somewhere that you don’t want it to go. How many kids on those courts are vaccinated? How many of them are wearing masks? Let that sink in for a minute. Absolutely mind blowing that Duke would also rather concentrate every student looking to better their physical health in one, confined space (Wilson) rather than opening Brodie gymnasium on East and thus decreasing the concentration of possible COVID vectors (students). I guess Duke would rather students expose themselves to COVID in off campus gyms where you can actually find an open bench or play basketball with strangers rather than in the vaccinated community on campus. Now doesn’t that seem stupid…

Squeezing Buses

Duke’s campus is unique. The dual-campus layout creates a lot of positives in establishing a first-year community.  Hell, it’s one of the main reasons I chose Duke. And looking forward to 2021, that was one thing that the administration really focused on. Let’s get first-years all living on East together SAFELY. However, the “blood sport” that is trying to catch a bus on East to make a 10:15 lecture is anything but SAFE. IF there’s ONE place Duke could invest with more impact to limit the spread of COVID it would be on greatly expanding bus coverage, the one place on campus where students are packed in like canned sardines and forced to abandon their social distancing policies. Not to mention that these busing practices also force students from different dorms who would otherwise probably not interact into a confined space. A COVID outbreak in Trinity could easily make its way cross campus to Basset through the bussing system.

Aside from the obvious solution to hire more bus drivers and run more buses, maybe some CS major could create an app with surge pricing to give rewards (I know every freshman needs more food points) to students who walk to class when the buses are more crowded (BTW, I want a cut of that if it ever becomes Facebook).

Squeezing Dining Options

College students eat… a lot. By closing indoor dining space and the inevitable reduction in options – especially for people with dietary restrictions, Duke is just squeezing the dining bubble. Ninth Street restauranteurs will thank Duke for the mobs of hungry students that will inevitably come their way: maskless, indoors and in restaurants with no capacity constraints.

Squeezing Students into the Bryan Center Package Delivery Hallway of Doom

OK, so this one seems smart – on the surface. But tell me, which is a greater COVID exposure risk? 1) Having FEDEX drop off packages at dorms (probably of MREs and home baked cookie supply drops for starving college kids – see dining above), or 2) having HUNDREDS of students, many who would otherwise never interact, packed tightly together in Bryan Center for hours in line claiming their goodies. This one is just stupid. Duke could have left up the tents from move-in day and re-tasked them as dorm delivery drop off points, or even just had drivers drop off behind dorms through the various parking lots located near each building. I guarantee you that to avoid the dreaded BC package line freshmen would happily receive their packages on their doorstep, while upperclassmen would welcome the lessened congestion. 

The last 18 months have proven that COVID is a tough enemy. But we are starting to win the battle. Nearly all Duke’s confirmed cases are asymptomatic or very mildly symptomatic. No one has been hospitalized. No one has died. The vaccines ARE working. Now we need to work on our response. Let’s quit squeezing the bubble and pretending that the problem is going to magically disappear because the part of the bubble that we can see gets smaller. Let’s focus on the whole bubble. 

I want to finish by saying that I do commend Duke for trying to do the right things. It’s tough. Things are always changing. But let’s adapt our policies to be results oriented and remind Duke to remember Newton’s third law. 

That every action, no matter its intent, has an equal and opposite reaction. 

Braeden Shepheard is a Pratt first-year.

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