“And that’s probably the downside of having good testing: you find a lot of cases that other countries, who don’t even test, don’t have. If you don’t test, you don’t have any cases. If we stop testing right now, we’d have very few cases, if any.”
These comments were infamously made by former President Donald Trump while speaking before a group of reporters in the White House during the early days of the pandemic. These remarks capture Trump’s desperate efforts to justify the country’s rising case count during the summer of 2020, as well as to convince the American electorate that his administration had the pandemic under control amidst his ill-fated campaign for a second term in office.
In more recent times, these remarks could potentially reflect the flawed rationale of the Trinity College COVID-19 Steering Committee when developing this semester’s health policies which end regular testing for a virus that continues to claim millions of lives and leave many with debilitating long-term symptoms.
The College’s downgraded COVID policies were released in an Aug. 18 email from Vice President for Student Success and Enrollment Joe DiChristina and Chief Financial Officer Dan Hitchell. In their address to the community, DiChristina and Hitchell, who serve as co-chairs of the Steering Committee, indicated that testing for asymptomatic individuals would be discontinued. It was also announced that Trinity’s COVID Dashboard would not be resumed.
Trinity’s decision to eliminate these essential health and safety protocols should concern all members of the community who may now be at heightened risk for infection and illness. Without a testing program that includes both symptomatic and asymptomatic individuals, as well as an online dashboard that displays weekly results, the virus will often spread undetected and its on-campus presence will remain largely unknown.
Unfortunately, many students who are asymptomatic will likely not get tested: if they do not feel ill, they may see no purpose in visiting the Health Center when testing is no longer required. After all, a positive test result means going into isolation; missing time from classes, extracurriculars, and friends; and potentially falling behind on important work. In the absence of mandatory testing, students have little incentive to monitor the spread of the virus on their own.
In addition to making the on-campus presence of the virus unclear, as well as facilitating a culture of apathy towards testing, the Steering Committee’s rollbacks seem to indicate that Trinity is disinterested in dealing with COVID despite its continued spread nationwide.
In August, The Guardian reported that the U.S. was averaging 400 deaths on a daily basis as a result of the virus. Most of the new infections, the article noted, came from the BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants of Omicron which represented over 80% of new cases. Research published in June by Harvard Medical School found that these subvariants appear to evade antibody response from individuals who have been fully vaccinated and boosted, as well as those who have previously been infected with the virus. The article also highlighted research showing that hundreds of millions of people worldwide are likely suffering from long-haul symptoms.
With these facts in mind, the following question must be raised: How does a committee of college administrators–charged with protecting the health and wellbeing of students, faculty, and staff—suddenly decide that ending regular COVID testing and reporting best serves the community?
While I am disappointed by this semester’s policies, I cannot say that I am surprised: Trinity has made some questionable decisions since the beginning of the pandemic.
In the fall of 2020, amidst an October outbreak that overwhelmed isolation facilities, the College placed infected students on the same floor as non-infected students in the Stowe and Clemens dormitories. The Tripod reported that this move was made without any notice to residents; parents and residents of Stowe and Clemens were not notified when registering for housing about the potential use of those spaces as isolation facilities. Senior administrators had refused to share with the Tripod the additional isolation spaces that the College identified on and off campus. A Tripod investigation at the time found that there was no mention of the College’s isolation facilities by name–other than Doonesbury–in the College’s Community Contract, residential life agreements, reopening website, and communications that had been sent to the community before Monday, Oct. 12.
Prior to its discontinuation, Trinity’s COVID reporting practices had been criticized publicly by students in the Tripod. A Dec. 2020 opinion piece noted that Trinity and Wesleyan were the only NESCAC schools which declined to update their coronavirus dashboards daily. Last fall, similar complaints were made in the Tripod as Trinity continued to update its dashboard twice per week. The Tripod reported that other NESCAC institutions at the time–including Williams, Amherst, Colby, and Tufts–updated their dashboard daily or every weekday; Connecticut College updated its dashboard at least four times per week. It was not until January of this year that Director of Analytics and Strategic Initiatives David Andres ‘04 told the Tripod at a virtual town hall that the dashboard would start to be updated “about a minimum of three times per week.”
Furthermore, President of the College Joanne Berger-Sweeney recently seemed to dismiss the pandemic’s continued existence. In a Sept. 6 email to the Trinity Community welcoming everyone back to campus, Berger-Sweeney fallaciously wrote that “[w]e start under the thankfully diminished cloud of COVID-19, and I know that nothing can suppress the spirit of renewal and determination that defines the beginning of the academic year.”
While Trump is no longer President, his destructive legacy appears to live on at Trinity through its flawed response to the pandemic.