UMass needs to reevaluate their mask mandate

As case counts become less indicative of severity, campus mask mandates must reflect this

Ana+Pietrewicz+%2F+Daily+Collegian

Ana Pietrewicz / Daily Collegian

By Luke Halpern, Collegian Columnist

Editor’s Note: This column previously stated that most cases were off-campus. This was untrue and this statement has been deleted.

The COVID-19 pandemic is likely the toughest stretch of time we’ve all had to face. For almost two years, we have dealt with isolation, sickness and in some cases, the death of our loved ones. Most of us know people who have tested positive for COVID-19, and many of us have had it ourselves. The pandemic has upended all our lives, especially for those that have lived on campus and attended classes at the University of Massachusetts.

UMass first required masks for all members of the campus community indoors and outdoors where social distancing was not possible in July 2020. The mask mandate remained in effect through a spring 2021 semester ripe with restrictions. That semester, however, also marked the beginning of widespread vaccinations for the community. Vaccinations against COVID-19 were announced to be required for the following fall semester in April 2021.

After a period of relatively low COVID-19 rates, the campus made masks optional for vaccinated individuals in May of last year, but reinstated the mandate in August as the virulent Delta variant spread. That mandate has remained in effect to this day.

In the first email to students from Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy regarding the current mandate, he wrote that it would be reviewed in “mid-September”. After mid-September came and went, students received another email from the Public Health Promotion Center stating that the mask mandate would “remain in effect indefinitely”. As Delta subsided, the Omicron variant arose, causing a new surge in cases that made continued masking necessary.

The Omicron wave caused a massive caseload in Massachusetts and the rest of the United States, with the country reporting one million cases a day at one point. However, Omicron has been found to cause less severe disease than prior variants of COVID-19, especially in vaccinated and boosted individuals, according to the CDC. Today, our Omicron wave is beginning to subside following its peak earlier this semester.

In response to the quickly residing peak of cases and hospitalizations, and with the knowledge that Omicron causes less severe illness especially in vaccinated individuals, states across the country have begun to rescind their mask mandates. Recently, Gov. Charlie Baker rescinded the statewide mask mandate in K-12 schools. This has led to universities across the state, including the University of Massachusetts Lowell, to reevaluate and remove their mask mandates. In an email sent to the campus just last week, co-directors of the PHPC Ann Becker and Jeffery Hescock wrote “We are monitoring the changing guidance on mask wearing and will integrate that into our assessment of our specific campus and local community situations.” They still refrained, however, from removing the mask mandate “based on current conditions”.

I compel UMass to rethink this decision and update their mask guidelines. While the PHPC’s decision to keep the mask mandate is valid, I believe it is slightly flawed. From Feb. 9-15, there were 456 positive COVID-19 cases at UMass. This has been part of a very-much expected surge following the return of students for the spring semester. Despite the increase in student activity, there have been no hospitalizations as part of this surge.

This lack of hospitalizations reflects the decreasing importance of case counts as a metric for severity, especially in a community that is as highly-vaccinated as UMass. Roughly 97 percent of the community is vaccinated, and all students were required to receive a booster before arriving on campus. In the same email reaffirming their mandate, the PHPC notes that “tracking case numbers in a highly vaccinated population has become less important in assessing campus health.”

Masks work. There is no logical argument against that. But at some point, COVID-19 is going to be part of our daily lives. Will we wear masks in the future? Some may choose to; we will all, including myself, decide when that time comes. But right now I believe the time is right to remove the indoor mask mandate. UMass has continuously leaned on state health guidance in regards to their public health decisions, and the state has updated their guidance to reflect the changing environment, with new CDC guidance expected soon.

UMass should continue to require masks where it is federally mandated, like on public transportation, and for unvaccinated and immunocompromised populations. It does not have to be permanent; the PHPC should continue to monitor COVID-19 test results and wastewater across campus, and if conditions warrant a return to masking (like a new, more deadly variant), they should reinstate it.

We have the ability to reevaluate conditions as they change. And now, conditions warrant a change. UMass students have done their part.

Luke Halpern can be reached at [email protected]