As the semester drew to a close last May, COVID-19 infection rates were steadily declining, indicating a possible end to this deadly pandemic. However, by late July, reported statistics throughout the nation showed an alarming increase in cases and deaths, specifically as a result of the novel Delta variant of COVID-19. According to the CDC, the seven-day moving average of cases climbed from 12,000 in late June to over 60,000 by July 27. As vaccination rates plateau and infection levels increase, hopes for the near end of the pandemic are fleeting.
When vaccination rates rose throughout the early months of 2021, the number of COVID-19 infections among vaccinated individuals accounted for only 1.1% percent of all cases nationwide as of June. Andy Slavitt, former White House senior advisor to the Biden administration on COVID-19, estimated in June that 98-99% of all COVID-19 related deaths were among unvaccinated individuals, while CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky stated that nearly every death by COVID-19, at this point, is preventable.
Despite the clear advantages of full vaccination, the number of eligible individuals who have received the vaccine has plateaued. As of Sept. 4, slightly less than 53% of the total United States population is fully vaccinated, leading to concerns among medical professionals, government leaders and members of the community as to whether the pandemic will see a full resurgence of severity.
Studies have shown that the Delta variant is twice as contagious as other variants and can be spread by those who are fully vaccinated. Preliminary research also suggests that those who contract the Delta variant may experience more severe symptoms than those who contract the original form of the virus. Although the majority of reported Delta variant cases are among unvaccinated individuals, transmission is still possible — though less common — among fully vaccinated people.
Since the emergence of the COVID-19 Delta variant and its concurrence with decreasing weekly vaccination rates, COVID-19 cases and deaths have begun to climb to levels similar to last November. At the height of the pandemic in January 2021, the seven-day average for new cases was over 250,000. By June 2021, cases dropped to a seven-day average low point of just over 11,000, but has since risen to over 160,000 cases per day once again.
Tufts University has implemented a series of updated policies for the 2021–22 school year following last year’s comprehensive COVID-19 safety plans. The policies now include mandatory vaccination for all students, weekly testing and required masks indoors for all members of the Tufts community. Fully vaccinated individuals are not required to wear masks or socially distance outdoors but are encouraged to do so if they feel more comfortable.
By comparison, Massachusetts state-level COVID-19 policies are less stringent. Aside from a July 30 mask advisory requiring masks on all forms of public and private transportation as well as in healthcare, congregate care and correctional facilities, there are no other explicit state-wide restrictions.
Although the Tufts administration has continued to institute exemplary restrictions since the beginning of the pandemic, there are risk factors that exist beyond the university’s control. Outside campus grounds, students must maintain personal responsibility for the risks they take with regards to COVID-19 safety. Until a larger portion of the population has been vaccinated and COVID-19 rates return to a decline, it would be unwise for people, including those who are fully vaccinated, to return to their pre-pandemic lifestyles.
When it comes to large groups of people, it is impossible to know every single person’s vaccination status and whether those who are vaccinated have potentially contracted the virus. Large, unmasked gatherings and particularly those that are indoors and without social distancing — like clubs, concerts and parties — will likely result in a rise of COVID-19 cases, ultimately perpetuating the same issues of the past two years.
As the pandemic continues, it is imperative that members of the Tufts community, vaccinated or not, understand the possible ramifications of their actions and make choices, and sacrifices, accordingly. The sacrifices made now, in the name of COVID-19 safety, will ultimately reduce the likelihood and severity of a further prolonged pandemic.