‘I just really fear getting COVID’: students report anxiety with updated COVID policies

Students+cross+the+intersection+of+Boylston+St.+and+Tremont+St.+in+front+of+the+Little+Building.

Photo: Cho Yin Rachel Lo

Students cross the intersection of Boylston St. and Tremont St. in front of the Little Building.

By Maddie Khaw, Assistant Enterprise News Editor

COVID-19 precautions have enveloped Emerson’s campus since the onset of the pandemic in 2020. Masks in classrooms, mandatory weekly COVID tests, and designated isolation spaces for COVID-positive students became commonplace as the Emerson community learned to live with the virus.

Effective May 16—and continuing when students return for the fall 2022 semester—the college’s COVID-19 procedures will look much different.

The policy shift, per Associate Vice President for Campus Life and “COVID Lead” Erik Muurisepp, comes in light of declining local case counts and official guidance, as well as consultation with Tufts Medical Center and the Boston Public Health Commission. 

“Based on where things are we felt this was the most logical step, as we’ve been stepping down restrictions and practices all academic term,” Muurisepp said. “We know a lot more about the virus, and that the vaccine and boosters help prevent significant illness and hospitalization.”

The college will shift from a weekly surveillance testing model to a symptomatic testing one, terminate its contact tracing program, move to an “isolate-in-place model” for positive cases, and drop the mask mandate in almost all campus spaces. Among these changes, one policy will remain the same—the college’s full vaccination requirement, which includes at least one booster shot.

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“I definitely want to see us making changes, and I’m really excited to have things more back to normal,” junior theatre and performance major Clara Livingston said. “But only within reason.”

Symptomatic testing will be available for students only, while faculty and staff “should consult with their primary care providers about testing,” the email said. Asymptomatic students who prefer to test regularly can do so with their own self-administered rapid antigen tests, it continued.

While the college will not provide rapid tests, Muurisepp noted that students can access tests through their health insurance—including the student insurance plan—which covers eight tests per month.

“If folks are concerned and want to still be testing on a regular basis, we feel that there are avenues for that,” Muurisepp said. “Mostly through what the government has set up for insurance companies and the tests they can send out.”

Not all students welcome the new changes. First-year communications studies major Andy Ambrose said she fears that, without surveillance testing, students can spread the virus unknowingly.

“My big fear is having COVID and giving it to other people and not knowing,” she said. “I don’t want to hurt other people’s lives.”

Ambrose said she worries about bringing COVID home to her parents or spreading it to her immunocompromised friends. Testing weekly helps mitigate these concerns, although she admits she panics each week as she awaits her test results. 

“I sit there waiting for the email or text message,” Ambrose said. “I would be like, ‘Oh my God, it’s two in the morning and I still don’t have my message; I must have COVID.’ It’s just bad for my anxiety, to have that fear.”

Junior theatre and performance major Alette Segerstrom said she prefers optional testing over symptomatic testing, while acknowledging that obtaining her own rapid tests on a regular basis doesn’t seem viable or realistic.

“I just wish [testing] was still accessible,” Segerstrom said. “I just like knowing that I’m safe and that, if I am sick, I’m not spreading it to other people. It makes me feel better.”

Similarly, first-year journalism major Adora Brown said weekly testing delivers a sense of security and helps alleviate COVID-related anxieties. She typically gets tested on Mondays, which she said provides “peace of mind” after weekends of being around different places and people. 

The lack of testing, Brown said, makes her feel “a little more anxious.”

“It’s a lot of faith they’re placing in the student body to go get tested, which I feel like everyone won’t necessarily do every single time,” Brown said. “That could definitely cause problems, because they’ll show up to class that day.” 

The college’s decision to shift to symptomatic testing was informed in part by the knowledge that other institutions have employed similar practices without “impacts to their operations,” Muurisepp said.

“The passing of the virus is a real concern, and we certainly understand that,” he said. “I think that’s also where you have to make decisions and take actions as an individual of how you are going to best protect yourself… Surveillance testing has been a great benefit to keep our campus open—but two years into it, we also know that symptomatic testing works just as well.”

Instead of moving students to dedicated isolation spaces upon testing positive, Emerson will require students who contract COVID-19 to quarantine in their assigned living space for the CDC-recommended five days. For 10 days after testing positive, they must remain properly masked when leaving their spaces; this move, Muurisepp said, “helps prevent the risk to others, or minimize the risk.”

To students like Livingston, however, this isolate-in-place model “doesn’t really make sense.”

“If that’s the policy, we should not call it isolating,” she said. “That’s not what’s happening… You’re still in the room with the person you live with—at least that’s how it seems to be—so you’re not in isolation.”

Brown added that the modified quarantine policy creates issues for anyone who lives with roommates.

“You’re definitely going to get your roommate sick,” she said. “That is a little absurd, in terms of being a ‘solution.’ Just because cases aren’t to the same extent as they were in January or February doesn’t mean that [the pandemic] is going to go away.”

Muurisepp acknowledged that “there are risks with all of these decisions.” 

“No one can ever create a risk free environment,” he said. “Especially when it deals with public health.”

However, he noted that even when quarantining in shared spaces with roommates or suitemates, students can take measures to mitigate risk. 

Emerson’s Center for Health and Wellness is currently working on a plan for students who test positive—as well as their living mates—detailing how to safely isolate within shared personal space. The department already has similar provisions for off-campus students who test positive and isolate in their apartments.

“It starts becoming similar to how you live alongside [others] when you are positive with flu or strep throat,” Muurisepp said. “Living in a shared environment, there are precautions you can take.”

Emerson’s masking policy will also be further relaxed on May 16. After shifting to a limited mask-optional model in March, the college will drop its mask mandate in academic spaces. The mask-optional policy will take effect in classrooms, but not in ECAPS and CHW, as masks are still required in healthcare facilities statewide.

Junior visual and media arts major Jack Adille said he feels comfortable without a mask, but that these more relaxed mask policies should be accompanied by required testing.

“We’re just getting used to not having masks, so I think it’s important to keep up with the testing.” Adille said. “There are people that obviously have it worse than others, and it’s good to know we are still keeping track of the positive and negative [tests].”

Without weekly testing, Livingston said she will likely revert to more consistent mask-wearing.

“I was feeling okay with mask optional because everyone’s tested—but knowing that people aren’t getting tested, I definitely want to mask more,” she said. “We need one or the other, for sure.”

First-year visual and media arts major Angelo Gontier, who wears his mask at all times, said that case counts over the summer will better inform his choices about mask-wearing next semester.

“Obviously, I miss not wearing a mask,” Gontier said. “I think it’s good we’re going back to normal—let’s just see how it goes.”

Ambrose, meanwhile, suggested there might be no such thing as “back to normal.”

“I want things to be normal so bad, but it can’t go back to what it was before,” Ambrose said. “There’s an ‘after,’ and it’s going to be different. I’d love to be without masks, and I’d love to not fear getting COVID. But unfortunately, I just really fear getting COVID.”

With the college’s vaccination requirement upheld, vaccinated students face a lesser risk of severe infection than those who are unvaccinated. Although breakthrough infections can happen and COVID risk depends on a number of factors besides immunization status, an unvaccinated person is 29 times as likely to end up hospitalized from COVID as a vaccinated person and five times as likely to get infected, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Emerson community’s vaccination rate sits at 98 percent, according to Muurisepp, with the rate among students alone reaching almost 99 percent.

“We are lucky to go to a school where most people are aligned with the ideology of getting vaccinated,” Brown said. “But I also don’t think we should take that for granted and start being completely loose with the guidelines we have in place.”

While she feels skeptical, Brown said she hopes the new policy goes well once implemented.

“I don’t want to be pessimistic about it,” she said. “We’re all just kind of going with the flow and seeing how things work. So, it’d be nice if it works. If it doesn’t, then they’ll make the adjustments they need, I’m sure.”

Muurisepp said there always exists the possibility of altering practices following the implementation of new policies, but he feels these changes will help the community start “living alongside the virus.”

“None of our decisions these past two years have been made lightly,” Muurisepp said. “We know every decision impacts a lot of people in lots of different ways. But our goal and our commitment has always been to reopen campus, to have in-person classes, and so we will do whatever we need to make sure that stays.”