From masked to almost fully vaccinated, the Notre Dame campus community has undergone a 360-degree turnaround on the COVID-19 front. With vaccination rates over 90%, there’s a palpable sense of a return to what once was. Dining halls are operating at full capacity, classes are held entirely in-person and clubs and activities have resumed. All of these are landmark signs of nature healing, but according to Saint Mary’s senior, Lisie Fahrenbach, perhaps the most exciting change of all is a more subtle one.
“All of the Porta Potties are back in the parking lots, which signals the return of tailgating,” she noted excitedly.
Despite recent changes, COVID-19 has not yet been completely eradicated. Roughly 1-2% of surveillance tests and 5-7% of symptomatic tests are coming back positive. People with primary symptoms — high fever, respiratory distress, loss of taste and smell — have yielded 15-18% positivity rates, while those with secondary symptoms — sore throat and congestion — are testing positive at approximately a 5% rate.
These students and faculty who are still testing positive — these COVID stragglers — undergo a Quarantine and Isolation (Q&I) process that differs from the experience of many during the 2020-2021 academic year.
The University Health Services’s (UHS) new director, Ed Junkins, explained that as a result of a highly and uniformly vaccinated community, Notre Dame is not seeing the same number of positive cases that it was last year. In fact, Junkins commented that around this time last year, between 400 and 500 students were in quarantine or isolation. This year, only 10 to 15 students are in Q&I at a time.
As a result, UHS has changed their COVID-19 protocols. Last year, any students who were deemed positive contacts were transported in vans to hotels across South Bend and left to quarantine. This year, the process differs for vaccinated and unvaccinated students. Positive contacts who are unvaccinated must quarantine for a minimum of seven days and receive tests on the fourth and seventh day of isolation. If both test results yield negative results, they will be considered safe to return to campus. On the other hand, vaccinated students are permitted to reside in their dorms provided they wear a mask at all times. If they test negative on the fourth day, they are permitted to return to class and walk around campus maskless.
“We are trying to be thoughtful in our contact tracing,” Junkins said. As more information is published about effective tracing methods, and in light of Notre Dame’s highly vaccinated campus, the university is lessening the pool from which they select positive contacts. Currently, mostly roommates and significant others are being considered positive contacts.
In addition to a change in the definition of positive contacts, the university has also begun to look at new trends. Specifically, UHS is starting to consider viral load, the actual quantity of the virus prevalent in an infected individual’s system.
With all of this new and ever-changing information in mind, Junkins implores the Notre Dame campus community to consume information with a certain degree of caution.
“The most unique thing about this pandemic is how quickly information changes, ‘’ Junkins said. “It is absolutely important to pay attention to your sources, expect information to change and know that we believe that we can predict what is going to happen if we pay close attention to the numbers, which we do every day.”
Junkins also noted that procedures and measures may vary with the nature and location of activities. The prevalence of COVID-19 on Notre Dame grounds is not comparable to its presence in the broader St. Joseph’s County. Remaining mindful of this discrepancy is important.
“The Notre Dame zipcode is the safest place in the state of Indiana: 46556,” he said. “I feel comfortable walking around without a mask for the most part, but when I go off campus to Martin’s, I put on my mask.”
As the situation continues to develop, it has become evident that being vaccinated and taking proper protectionary measures does not guarantee immunity. One Notre Dame student learned this fact at the beginning of this semester.
On a sunny Saturday morning this August, Notre Dame senior Anna Heavey began to feel what appeared to be the onset of COVID-19 symptoms. New to Notre Dame COVID-19 policy this year, rapid tests are no longer available on the weekends. Accordingly, she trekked to a local testing site to receive a rapid test. The results were positive.
More roadblocks arose when Heavey attempted to get in touch with the COVID-19 hotline, as it does not operate on the weekends. She had to take measures into her own hands by quarantining in her off-campus apartment and reaching out to friends who could be deemed close contacts. The university was in touch the following Monday morning, performed a second test to confirm that it wasn’t a false positive and checked in with her throughout the period of quarantine.
As opposed to last year’s semi-hybrid model combining Zoom and in-person classes, Zoom is no longer permitted as an option for instruction. Heavey explained, however, that professors were accommodating to her situation, and most made Zoom a temporary option so that she could keep up with the workload. Still, in classes where Zooming in wasn’t an option, it was a bit difficult to stay up-to-date.
“I was able to Zoom and talk to my group and work with them during that time, but I did miss a few of the professor’s announcements since I couldn’t Zoom into the class,” she said. “But in terms of assignments, I was able to stay on top of my work.”
As the semester progresses, responsibility and resiliency remain key when navigating the waters of the persistent formidable foe of COVID-19. Junkins encourages the Notre Dame community to keep that at the forefront of everything they do.
“At Notre Dame, we have done things differently; we are a success story compared to last year,” he said. “But we still have to be responsible even though we are vaccinated — responsible for people who aren’t vaccinated, who are sick, younger. For the 5% of the Notre Dame community who aren’t vaccinated, so that they, too, can enjoy the benefits of herd immunity.”