Mask mandate returns, some students skeptical

Students move into Gladding Residence Center on Aug 18. Photo by Kaitlyn Fulmore

Emma Carlson, Contributing Writer

Students across campus are feeling the full effects of a reinstated mask mandate with the fall semester beginning. 

Psychology graduate student Patricia Basta expressed disappointment with the return of the mask mandate.

“It’s a little frustrating because you started getting used to having to not wear masks, and now they’re bringing it back, but I’m just happy to be in the classroom again,” Basta said.

VCU announced on Aug. 9 that, effective immediately, indoor masking would be reinstated throughout the university and continued in all health systems facilities for all individuals, regardless of vaccination status. 

VCU’s updated mask guidelines come from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance and evolving COVID-19 data, which shows cases in Virginia on the rise. Cases in August have averaged almost 2,000 per day, compared to 100 in early June. 

August 2020 had a seven-day moving average of around 1,000 cases per day, with rates peaking in January at around 6,100 per day, according to the Virginia Department of Health.

Basta has three in-person classes this semester with one online. She said she is excited to get to experience grad school in person compared to online last year.

The delta variant is the primary COVID-19 strain that is causing new cases, according to the VDH. The week of July 18 through 24 saw at least 382 new cases in Virginia. Of those cases, 375 were caused by the delta variant. The number of cases caused by the variant heightened the following week to 403 out of the 404 new cases. The VDH notes that July 11 and onward contains evolving data, meaning not all cases have been reported yet.   

VCU requires both students and faculty on campus to receive a COVID-19 vaccine unless they have a religious or health exemption. The vaccination dashboard displays current percentages of vaccinated individuals, and as of Sunday, 90.2% of students and 86.6% of faculty have verified their full vaccination status. 

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has authorized three COVID-19 vaccines for emergency use in the United States: Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson and Johnson (Janssen). 

On Monday, Pfizer became the first vaccine to receive full FDA approval for those 16 years and older, according to the FDA.

As of Tuesday, 55.9% of Virginians are fully vaccinated and 63.2% have at least one dose, according to the VDH. In Richmond, 51.9% of the adult population is fully vaccinated and 58.1% have at least one dose.

Signs in the James Branch Cabell Library inform students that masks in the library are still required. Photo by Kaitlyn Fulmore

Richmond City is considered an area of high transmission of COVID-19, which is determined by having over 100 new cases per 100,000 people over a seven-day moving period. For areas of high transmission, the CDC recommends additional prevention strategies such as masking indoors and physical distancing for all individuals. 

Spokesperson Michael Porter failed to elaborate why VCU only reinstated the mask mandate and not physical distancing. Porter also did not comment on the delta variant.

“VCU’s decisions are based on recommendations from the university’s Public Health Response Team,” Porter stated in an email.

Porter is a member of the university’s PHRT. 

Social work graduate student Rebecca Shannon was frustrated about VCU’s decision to reimplement the mask mandate. Awaiting her first year of grad school in person, she was disappointed in the policy.

“I think it’s safe to err on the side of caution,” Shannon said, “but I also don’t love it.”

Shannon felt that although VCU is taking CDC recommendations into consideration, those who determine the university’s policies are not all medical personnel. Of the 15 members on the PHRT, eight have a doctorate of medicine or M.D., but this is not stated directly on the webpage.

The PHRT reviews current guidelines from the CDC, VDH, and VCU’s own medical personnel when determining university public safety policies, according to Porter.

Shannon also felt VCU was not being upfront with why they decided to reinstate masking and not physical distancing. 

“You can’t have this many students on campus and physically distance the way you’re supposed to. You can’t. It’s not possible,” Shannon said. “VCU is a business, and they’re trying to stay in business as best as they can, but I think when you’re trying to make money, you can never be fully transparent.”

The VCU announcement from Aug. 9 stated that mitigation strategies such as masking and vaccination will be effective, and the university will continue to monitor the prevalence of COVID-19 in the community to determine public health policies. 

Members of the VCU community can receive the latest information on VCU’s COVID-19 response from One VCU: Better Together.

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