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Opinion: Put others’ health above your own convenience

Updated: Nov 3, 2021

Sophie Smith

Staff writer

Illustration of blue dace mask with text drawn on saying show you care
Art by Maizy Goerlitz.

As the United States’ COVID-19 death toll nears, or perhaps surpasses, 200,000, Willamette’s campus buzzes with energy as many students settle into another semester of in-person education. Now, all members of this community must burden the responsibility of making the right choices in order to keep students, staff members and other folks in Salem safe.

The University’s decision to reopen has drawn criticism from many, notably the advocacy group Willamette University Alumni for a Virtual Fall 2020, which calls the decision “gravely irresponsible and dangerous.” Despite these objections, the semester is now in full-swing, albeit with the option to attend classes remotely, a massive tent splayed across Brown Field, safety protocols taped up in well-trafficked hallways and recurring emails to alert readers whenever another person on campus tests positive. At the time of publication, the University had announced six people have tested positive, at least four of which are employees and one is a student living on-campus.

Whether or not you support reopening, throngs of Willamette students have arrived, and now all community members must shoulder the responsibility of keeping one another safe. One crucial aspect of this collective responsibility is the act of monitoring oneself for possible COVID-19 symptoms, and to isolate at home for an appropriate length of time when a possible symptom arises.

Most people likely have the list of symptoms committed to memory by now: fever, cough, chills, headache, shortness of breath, nausea, sore throat, runny nose, vomiting, chest pain, rash, eye problems… on it goes. When allergies, period cramps and sensitivity to wildfire smoke can be so easily mistaken as COVID-19, the practice can be of great strain to one’s nerves, but still. We should be doing it.

Not only is self-monitoring the ethical thing to do, it’s also University policy. Students who signed the WU Well U Agreement at the beginning of the semester vowed to “check [themselves for COVID symptoms daily,” and to stay home and contact a health provider should symptoms arise.

Willamette students also have access to #CampusClear, an app where one can voluntarily and anonymously record the symptoms they’re feeling, and can be cleared for campus access if they’re feeling fine. The app’s welcome page says, “Recent research has shown that daily self-reporting of symptoms, used in tandem with campus policies and procedures, can have a meaningful impact on keeping populations safe.”

Clearly, it is in a community’s best interests for individuals to stay home when they’re feeling unwell. What’s less clear is how long that period of isolation is supposed to last, especially if the symptom in question is a mild one that could also be attributed to allergies, PMS, wildfire smoke, anxiety, pepper spray, the common cold (on it goes).

The CDC offers guidance “for most persons with COVID-19 illness,” saying their isolation periods can end once three criteria have been met: 10 days have passed since the symptoms arose, a fever has been resolved for at least 24 hours and all symptoms have improved. In reference to the seasonal flu, the CDC suggests people stay home for four or five days following symptom onset.

Neither the WU Well U Agreement nor the #CampusClear app indicates how long one should self-isolate in the case of symptom presentation, although both refer students to their health provider, like Bishop Wellness Center.

Tim Cobb, Willamette’s vice president for Marketing and Communications, said, “[#CampusClear] simply asks that you not come to campus on that day you endorse one or more symptoms… If you are no longer symptomatic the next day, and indicate this in the app, you are able to come to campus.”

Public health guidance encourages people to err on the side of caution when they feel ill. So too should be the case on Willamette’s campus. Employees are contracting the virus, despite not being in “close contact” with others on campus. Custodial staff members—many of whom are now contracted by the University and not entitled to Willamette’s sick leave policies—are still working in-person. The stakes are too high not to take self-monitoring seriously.

Not everyone has the luxury of isolating at the onset of mild symptoms, and, of course, asymptomatic transmission of the virus is also a serious threat: one Italian study found that over 80 percent of people 20 years and younger with known coronavirus infections presented without symptoms.

“People should not rely solely on the app and an ‘All clear to come to campus’ designation as a substitute for any of the other very important interventions in place. We should all behave as if we are all potentially contagious,” said Cobb, citing the University's other precautions in place, such as the campus mask requirement, efforts to enforce social distancing and an adaptable sick leave policy for University employees, including student workers.

Still, diligent self-monitoring is an effective way for individuals to be mindful of their bodies’ needs, hold themselves accountable and protect the people around them. This country’s COVID-19 response has been a calamitous failure, due in part to authorities equipping the public with the ability to make potentially deadly choices: dine in a restaurant, or stay home. Wear a mask, or don’t. Take your classes in a classroom, or take them online. Stay in your room when you have a headache, or go to class anyway.

In the absence of clear directives, it’s the responsibility of those with the ability to make choices that determine the safety of others to be particularly cautious, and put others’ health above their own comfort. So, if you find yourself with a headache and the privilege of choosing to stay home or go to class, slow down, think carefully, and make the right choice.

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Dec 13, 2021

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