Record number of COVID-19 cases at Whitman prompt reinstatement of the mask mandate


Illustration by Madeleine Stolp.

Lily Yost, News Reporter

From Monday, April 18 to Thursday, April 21, Peter Harvey, Chair of the Coronavirus Task Force, reported 49 positive COVID-19 test results and a total of 60 students in isolation. A sudden uptick in cases on Friday, April 15, led President Kathleen Murray to send an emergency alert announcing a reversal to required masking. 

The message was sent outside of standard business hours, and according to Harvey, the decision to send the announcement as an emergency alert was to ensure staff, faculty and students would receive the message. 

“We also wanted to make sure people were aware before heading to any of the many social gatherings that were scheduled for the weekend,” Harvey wrote in an email sent to The Wire. 

According to Whitman’s epidemiologist Ben Miller, the new variant is a subvariant of Omicron and is causing the majority of new infections. It is 30 percent more transmissible than Omicron, making it as transmissible as measles. 

“In a vaccinated and boosted population, almost everyone who is infected with the Omicron subvariant will likely experience some symptoms,” said Miller in an email sent to The Wire. 

Miller said most cases emerging on campus are occurring in spaces that don’t require masks, like dorm rooms, social gatherings and shared transportation. 

According to a campus-wide email sent out from President Murray, the emergency alert was issued when nine positive cases were reported on Friday, April 15, bringing the total of positive cases that week to 19. In consultation with Miller, the Coronavirus Task Force decided to reimplement masking.

“Moving between required and optional masking has been part of the college’s planning since this winter. I think there will be times of optional masking, when cases in the community and on campus are low, and times when masking is temporarily reinstated when cases rise above expected levels,” Miller wrote in the email. 

According to Miller, the purpose of reinstating mask mandates is to limit campus infections, to support the ability of students to participate in class and campus activities and to ensure isolation spaces are not overwhelmed. 

Professor of Politics Aaron Bobrow-Strain was surprised to see the sudden increase in cases. He chooses to keep his mask on in his classes and said the majority of his students do too. 

“I’m glad that the college took action at that moment,” Bobrow-Strain said. “I had a seminar where there was a student with COVID-19, in a small seminar room for three hours, but everyone was masked.”

According to Harvey, the high case count at Whitman is likely to linger, if not increase. 

“It is realistic to expect another seven to 10 days of extremely high case counts,” wrote Harvey in a campus-wide email. “We are likely still on the front edge of this outbreak.”

To stay on track for an in-person commencement, Harvey stressed the importance of social distancing and wearing N95 or equivalent masks. He also urges students who are having symptoms or who have been in close contact with someone who has been infected to get tested. 

According to Harvey, people should get tested 24 hours after the onset of symptoms and five to seven days after exposure to the virus. 

“We expect that everyone who has symptoms or is known to be a close contact will responsibly access testing on-campus, or inform us if they have a positive test through a home test or community testing,” Harvey wrote in the email to The Wire.