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Tales from the 90-day exemption period

As of the time of writing this article, Brandeis’ COVID-19 positivity level is… oh right. We don’t have a COVID-19 tracker anymore. As any Brandeis student can attest to, COVID-19 is everywhere on campus right now, and likely spreading to more and more students each day. 


Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing how bad the situation truly is. Instead of detailed information through a COVID-19 dashboard like we had last year, all we have now is a color gauge. In case you were wondering, we’re at “yellow” now. Whatever that means.


The university says that they are continuing to “assess and adjust our protocols to make compassionate, respectful, data-informed decisions about how we continue to respond to COVID-19 on our campus.” Problem is, the university retired the surveillance testing program, meaning that getting an accurate reading on campus infection levels is nearly impossible. The university is relying largely on the honor system, expecting students to call the Health Center and inform them that they’ve been infected with COVID-19. Expecting college students to make the right choice is the fate of all fools. Expecting them to voluntarily place themselves in social isolation during the first few weeks of the year is even more foolish.


I’m (un)lucky enough to have had COVID-19 in the middle of June, which puts me at the tail end of my exemption period. During this period, I am not considered a possible disease vector by the university, and therefore am exempt from quarantine and PCR testing after exposure. During this period, my roommate and several friends of mine have gotten COVID-19. Several more have been exposed and have been incredibly responsible in keeping others safe from themselves. I am grateful for my friends’ responsible choices, but wish that the university had taken steps to ensure that these COVID-19 exposures never occurred in the first place.


By ending the biweekly testing program, Brandeis has unleashed a deluge of possible positive cases upon the Health Center. The Health Center is overbooked, and according to a friend of mine who had to book multiple PCR tests, “apparently the tracing center was so backed up they couldn’t book same day, it was 1-3 days in advance.” If someone who has COVID-19 needs to wait one to three days for a PCR test, which can take another day or so to return results, they could be positive and not even know it. The less socially responsible among us could take this as an opportunity to go to a party, to have a meal with friends or go to class. By creating a delay in the notification of COVID-19 positivity, Brandeis is potentially also creating hundreds of COVID-19 cases on its campus.


It’s as though the university planned for a massive drop in COVID-19 cases. The university must have thought that COVID-19 would be virtually gone if they chose to eliminate the testing program. It feels like Brandeis has been caught between resuming life before COVID-19 and provisioning a safety net with post-exposure testing. The thought is nice, providing the Brandeis community with testing, but you can’t do it in half-measures. The middle path leads to an overwhelmed Health Center, a sick student population and a rambling opinion piece by me.


The university’s choice to discontinue the surveillance testing program was a mistake. According to the WHO, whom I trust more than Brandeis’ administration on this subject, “evidence suggests that SARS-CoV-2 RNA can be detected in people one to three days before their symptom onset.” That one-to-three-day period is critical for two reasons, one of which is absurd. Firstly, earlier detection can prevent transmission: if students are able to learn that they have COVID-19 from a regularly scheduled test, rather than from a test after the onset of symptoms, the spread of the disease can be prevented. Secondly, ironically, Brandeis students must now wait one to three days to get tested because of the Health Center’s overload. If the university had kept the surveillance testing program, which provided safety and student jobs to the community, all of this could have been avoided. Students could go about their days without fear of getting sick, and the Health Center workers could get a little bit of sleep. But, instead, Brandeis decided to save a penny by ending the testing program. Now, we’re in for it.


When my exemption period ends in just a few short days, I will be scared. I’ll be walking around campus afraid of getting sick, knowing that it didn’t have to be this way. Just like the rest of the Brandeis community.

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