By: Elishama Marmon  | 

Is YU Really Following the Science?

Yeshiva University has again updated its COVID-19 policies, with changes that took effect upon return from the holiday break this week. The new regulations consist of mandated masking in “all academic and administrative buildings and intercampus shuttles, excluding the residence halls,” as well as biweekly COVID testing on campus. These requirements, though obviously intended to keep students and faculty safe, are superfluous and a drain on the time and learning ability of YU students, as well as a perpetuation of the excessive fear of COVID among students who are not at risk from this virus.

The way to understand a virus like COVID is through the statistics. Between Jan. 1, 2020 and Sept. 18, 2021, a total of 1,146 people between the ages of 19 and 24 (the approximate ages of students on campus) have died of COVID-19 in the United States. The total population of that age group is 25,867,140, meaning that the death rate for COVID has been 0.0044% among YU students’ age group. 

That is incredibly low. But it gets lower. 

That number comes almost entirely from deaths pre-vaccination. The vaccines, with little variance by age between 18 and 65, prevent 97% of deaths from COVID, which, layered on top of the previous number, gives a fatality rate of about 0.00013%. That’s just 1.3 people dying per million. That is less than 1% of the odds of dying in a car crash, which is about 117 per million per year. We are safe from COVID. It is not a significant risk for us.

Even for the older teachers and administrators for whom the virus is more deadly, the vaccine is effective at reducing the spread of COVID and its lethality for people above age 65 (a 94% reduction in hospitalization and likely a higher reduction in deaths). For those without serious comorbidities, the fatality rate once vaccinated is incredibly low for all age groups.

But what about steps beyond even this level of safety? What about testing? Testing is safe and can help identify positive cases, but even when provided on campus is quite inconvenient for students to have to do twice a week. Due to my schedule, for example, I only have a break during the Monday testing period from 12-12:45 p.m. I have to spend a very significant chunk of my only break between 9 a.m. and 5:45 p.m. getting tested. The threat held over us is that if we forget, can’t schedule, or miss a test, we will be locked out of all YU buildings, which in my case, includes my dorm room. Additionally, as I will discuss, it fuels the perpetual panic and fear of a virus which, as explained, is a nonissue for the vast majority of the YU family.

Masking is another question. A recent study in Bangladesh where villages were either left alone as a control group, encouraged to wear cloth masks or encouraged to wear surgical masks found that while the surgical masks had some effect, it was only for people older than 50. Additionally, there was “no effect for cloth masks.” It’s also important to note that COVID spreads primarily by being exhaled with droplets (largely not affected by masks) and building up in rooms with poor ventilation. This detail explains why airplanes (which sport advanced air filtration systems) have not been vectors of transmission. This would lead to the conclusion that the masks would be even less effective in a poorly ventilated classroom, where particles can build up over the course of a class, than they are in rural Bangladesh, where gatherings are largely outdoors. This data must be added onto the fact that the Delta variant is more virulent than the Alpha variant, with about 1,000 times as high a viral load and 43 times as much aerosolized viral RNA (leaving masks even less effective than before). Perpetually attempting to use masking and other relatively ineffective prevention measures instead of accepting that the virus is here to stay is just wishful thinking.

But what are the downsides of masking? The primary one in the context of a university is a restriction of social cues and interactions necessary to learn optimally and connect with people. Many people also find masks unpleasant to wear, and according to the FDA, they may cause breathing problems or oxygen deprivation. The price of suboptimal learning and social connection (as well as whatever other effects there may be) is not worth the largely negligible benefits of masking.

Additionally, there is a serious internal inconsistency in YU’s own rules. At the start of this semester, there was a vaccine requirement and the need for a PCR test to return to campus. A temporary but indefinite mask mandate was then imposed on Aug. 30, and over the break biweekly testing was announced. YU’s email to students said that they are “constantly monitoring the NYS and NYC guidelines and infection rates,” but those guidelines and infection rates have both been nearly unchanged since the start of the semester. YU did not respond to my request for comment about what specific data or guidelines had caused them to change their regulations. 

This inconsistency and lack of clear communication is as problematic as any statistical point, and has been a sore point for institutions up to the state and federal governments. There is no proper sense that YU is making intelligent, controlled and data-based decisions. This leaves the student body, including many students I have personally spoken to, confused, annoyed and unsure of the risk that COVID poses to them.

On the flip side, there are many students who are under the assumption — a sensible one at first glance — that these policies are science-based. This leads them to logically conclude that COVID is a significant danger to them, and to significantly change their patterns of social interaction or day-to-day life in the fruitless quest to avoid a mild cold. Furthermore, there is an assumption that COVID is some sort of moral virus, striking only those who are not properly observing the quasi-religious rituals advised by our moral betters. This leads to guilt and anxiety among those who get it, making them feel that they must have done something wrong. An example of the COVID guidelines becoming almost religious in nature is demonstrated at Stanford University: A professor found that students who were bicycling were almost twice as likely to be wearing a mask than a bike helmet. This is despite the previously laid out statistics, on top of the point that under 1% of all transmission occurs outdoors. Another example of blatant disregard for actual science in deference to “doing something” is when Dr. Fauci, despite the data, advised people to “Just wear a mask. Wear a surgical mask, a cloth mask … wear a mask.” This, as we saw, blatantly contradicts the data, which is clear that cloth masks are completely ineffective. The mask is simply a way of demonstrating that you have the right views, even if wearing it is illogical.COVID is endemic. It is not going anywhere. And yet the goalposts for return to normal life continue to be pushed off. Two weeks to flatten the curve became a month. Then it became a year. The goal was to flatten the curve. Then it was to stop the spread. Then it was to get vaccines out. Then to get to 60-70% herd immunity. Then 80%. Now the goal is — I kid you not — a 97% to 98% vaccination rate. There are no more reasonable goalposts. The only goal seems to be completely wiping out a virus which — I cannot emphasize this enough — is going nowhere. We need to take a step back, take a deep breath and reevaluate. We on YU’s campuses are vaccinated. We are safe. Our lives must return to normal, free of mandates, tests and panic. When that happens is up to us as an institution.

Photo Caption: Students wearing masks

Photo Credit: The Commentator