Anxieties and ambiguities: Duke’s 2022 COVID-19 policies

Duke’s approach to the COVID-19 pandemic has raised a number of concerns among the student body and the Durham community. Many have criticized Duke’s strict measures to avoid the spread of disease in classrooms while also allowing popular events, such as basketball games, to continue. If Duke’s administration prioritizes attendance at these games over core academics in regard to its COVID-19 policies, what does that emphasis reveal about its attitude towards the Duke experience—which should presumably be focused on educational opportunity?

Duke’s testing procedures were largely successful at preventing the spread of COVID-19 before the Omicron variant, and students were fortunate to benefit from such a robust testing infrastructure. However, over the past four weeks, Duke has sustained a high number of positive cases, which have called into question the legitimacy and efficacy of its testing policies. Should Duke continue to test asymptomatic individuals, or should the university approach COVID-19 as an endemic virus? Additionally, Duke’s weekly testing regimen has used a vast number of financial resources which could be used to test the Durham community or help students stay up to date on classwork from within quarantine. 

The relatively mild nature of the Omicron variant for those who are vaccinated presents an opportunity for Duke to transition to an endemic response. This would not include the testing of asymptomatic students and instead applies Duke’s resources to achieve better student outcomes. With individuals gaining immunity from boosters and natural infection, the Duke community has a high level of protection against COVID-19. A survey polling 100 immunologists and infectious-disease researchers about whether COVID-19 would become endemic showed that about 90% of respondents believe that “it is here to stay.” Furthermore, CDC guidance for colleges does not include testing of asymptomatic individuals, and yet Duke continues to do so through its surveillance testing program. 

Rice University has been leading the way in transitioning to an endemic approach to COVID-19, which prioritizes student outcomes. “We will begin to shift our policies to a posture that recognizes COVID-19 as endemic and facilitates our ability to deliver the best education and opportunity to our students,” stated Rice President David Leebron. The continued testing of Duke students, who are 98% vaccinated , unnecessarily expends resources that would be better allocated to other educational and teaching expenses. One such opportunity could be using testing funds to further invest in structures and technology that enable online attendance and prevent students in isolation from missing out on work. Additionally, Duke could be supporting Durham's lower-income communities, which have far lower rates of vaccination and consequently, higher rates of hospitalizations. 

The perhaps least ambiguous portions of Duke’s COVID-19 policies are those which have been flagrantly hypocritical. Notably, when the university communicated that the beginning of Spring semester instruction would be exclusively virtual, students anticipated that this serious departure from Duke’s near-universal in-person attendance in the Fall semester would accompany other, mitigating measures. Instead, while DukeGroups organizations were prohibited from hosting gatherings of 50+ people without administrative approval, the university sponsored three men’s basketball games in Cameron Indoor Stadium, which has a stated capacity of 9,314 seats—it should go without saying that Cameron was well-attended in all three instances.

A contrast this stark is difficult to ignore, even while most students relish the opportunity to support the university in Section 17. While Duke banned in-person instruction—some with as few as five socially-distanced students—several thousand attended games on January 4, 8 and 15, often separated by no more than a couple of inches. These policies can be candidly evaluated when considered separately; however, it is difficult to take a university seriously when it fails to articulate a clear message regarding  the goal of its often contradictory policies. Are we attempting to eradicate COVID-19 from Duke University? Or have we instead come to terms with what is increasingly a benign endemicity for the vaccinated?

The university’s handling of COVID-19 in the past has been admirable compared to many other institutions of similar stature. Instead of mandating fabricable symptom questionnaires before classes, Duke established an efficient, empirically-based testing regime which, according to Duke Spokesperson Michael Schoenfeld, has issued nearly one million COVID-19 tests to university students and staff in the past 17 months. However, the Duke community has some soul-searching to do as we transition to exiting this pandemic and prepare for life with in-person classes without this all-dominating virus.

In lieu of these changes in testing and instructional accommodation, Duke is better positioned today to fight COVID-19 and go back to normal life than at any time in the past two years. There is certainly no single policy that can satisfy the needs of members of all our community—if there was, surely every university would follow identical practices. Immunocompromised individuals, in particular, will always be faced with especially difficult decisions regarding exposure to any number of pathogens, be they household bacteria, otherwise harmless fungi to the immunocompetent, or in this case, SARS-CoV-2. However, combining two contradictory policies undermines both approaches in the process. Moving forward, it is up to administrative forces to decide which COVID-19 policies are considered effective, and how resources can be used to best support the Durham community and academic life here at Duke.

The Community Editorial Board is independent from the editorial staff of the Chronicle. Their column runs on alternate Tuesdays.


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