In less than one year, DePaul University went from having stringent COVID-19 guidelines to eliminating nearly every measure that it put in place.
At this time last year, DePaul was under a mask mandate, it had free PCR testing sites on campus and all known positive cases were reported to students via a university COVID-19 tracker graph and COVID-19 tracers.
Now, DePaul is in the dark. No more mask mandate. No more highly accurate COVID-19 testing. No more public COVID-19 documentation or tracing, through graphs or otherwise.
The last COVID-19 tracker report available cataloged known positive cases on campus between January 1, 2022 and August 26, 2022. It showed that DePaul had 992 positive cases during that tracking period. Despite that time period being less than one year, the number of reported cases then was over four times the number reported in all of 2021, which was 227 cases.
Reina Ashley Nomura is frustrated with these changes. Nomura got her undergraduate degree from DePaul in 2021 and is currently a graduate student at DePaul in the education, culture, and society certificate program. She feels that DePaul is not considering the current state of the pandemic.
“I’m a part of this big disconnect with my experience at DePaul, where, you know, DePaul feels like we’ve gone back to 2019, pre-COVID-19; back to normal,” Nomura said.
What makes this disconnect even greater is Nomura’s involvement in the People’s CDC, which according to their website, is a coalition run by people “working to reduce the harmful impacts of COVID-19.”
Nomura is a weather report team member. She works on a weekly report that gathers information from sources related to COVID-19 transmission and spread.
“One of the things that we found was that when people are more informed about the severity of COVID, they’re more likely to take precautionary measures like wearing masks,” Nomura said.
DePaul does not have campus COVID-19 data available to students. The City of Chicago has a report of positive cases in the city, but it is not all-encompassing. The data does not cover positive test results yielded from at-home COVID-19 tests.
There are two main types of tests for COVID-19. Arguably, the most accessible kind is at-home rapid tests. People in the United States can apply to have four free COVID-19 tests sent to them by the government free of charge.
However, the most widely-accessible way to get a test result is not counted by government officials.
The Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH) says that a positive result from an at-home rapid test should be considered a true positive, and says people should notify their close contacts, isolate and stay at home for a minimum of five days. CDPH does not require the public to test again with a PCR or “confirmatory test.”
Although people may be taking COVID-19 rapid tests’ accuracy at face value, these positive results are not factored into the City of Chicago’s totals.
According to a statement from the CDPH, “there is currently no sustainable mechanism for at-home tests to be reliably reported to the public health department.”
“In alignment with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other public health agencies, COVID-19 surveillance continues to be based on results from laboratory testing,” wrote the CDPH.
The CDPH currently keeps track of all laboratory-confirmed cases, which does not include positive results given through rapid tests. This distinction was not always immediately clear. The department only recently updated the labels on its COVID-19 tracker to reflect the data it was collecting.
“The graph title was changed from ‘Cases’ to ‘Laboratory-Confirmed Cases’ at the beginning of November 2022 to clarify that at-home test results are not represented in these counts,” wrote the CDPH.
Rapid tests results being excluded from the total number of cases means the overall spread of COVID-19 may be underreported in Chicago data.
Apart from tracking reported COVID-19 cases, public health surveillance also occurs through the sampling and testing of wastewater. Traces of COVID-19 can be found in the feces of people infected with COVID-19, whether or not they show symptoms.
In September 2020, the CDC launched the National Wastewater Surveillance System to monitor COVID-19. According to the CDC website, “Wastewater testing over time can provide trend data that can complement other surveillance data to inform public health decision-making.”
This method cannot be used to determine the total number of people infected with COVID, but it can provide early detection of community infection rates.
Nomura said that the People’s CDC uses wastewater data from the CDC, along with hospitalization rates, transmission data and other datasets from the CDC to monitor COVID-19 in its weekly reports.
Gwenyth True, a senior at DePaul, says, “I think it’s important, regardless of the raw data, to think about … what those numbers mean for our community members and how they impact individuals. Because it’s great that numbers are generally lower, but that doesn’t mean that there’s no risk at all.”
True is the co-president of Accessible Futures DePaul, an on-campus student organization that “advocates for disability justice principles on campus and the full inclusion of disabled DePaul community members.”
True explains that many members of her group were concerned about the lack of online learning options after DePaul largely reopened its campuses in Fall Quarter 2021. In 2020, the majority of DePaul’s classes were held online.
When campus reopened, DePaul took initiative to monitor COVID-19 activity on campus and within the community.
For two years between August 2020 and August 2022, DePaul had monitored positive COVID-19 cases where the student or faculty member was either in the vicinity of campus or a resident of student housing.
According to Cheryl Hover from DePaul Community Health, “When the pandemic began announcements were sent university-wide every time an individual was reported to be on-campus while potentially contagious. This practice continued through May of 2021. At that point, the vaccine became widely available and the university switched to notifications using the dashboard (updated daily) and notifications based on close contacts and those in close proximity (for example, in the same classroom). As announced on August 18, , DePaul discontinued on-campus COVID-19 reporting and contact tracing for the 2022-2023 academic year. Because we are not requiring reporting of cases, we are no longer sending notifications.”
But what exactly happened to those students who tested positive?
Students who lived on campus and tested positive had the choice to live in the quarantined units or to reside in their own isolated area in their own homes and/apartments. These units were not offered for students and faculty living off campus.
Throughout that period, on-campus PCR testing was available for students. After the discontinuation of COVID-19 tracking, DePaul only offered at-home rapid kits for pick-up on campus.
Craig Klugman of DePaul’s COVID-19 Health team says the committee’s responsibilities changed as the pandemic intensified, then eventually tapered off. According to Klugman, the team’s objective was to respond to the immediate threat during the beginning of the pandemic.
“Our tasks at this point were to follow the local, national, and international data; follow CDC, WHO, IDPH and CDPH guidelines and report our findings to the Covid Response Task Force that was led by VP of Finance Jeff Bethke. In the early days, we met twice a day, five days a week,” he said.
The team continued their duties along with taking other precautions after transforming into a subcommittee of the Re-Opening Task Force in 2020, they. From upkeeping mask requirements, to monitoring food safety and resident hall density, the team continued to practice the best safety measures for the DePaul community.
They instilled these measures by providing sanitizing stations and enabling the Campus Clear app, where residents could report their health status daily before entering buildings on campus. These services slowly dissolved by August 2022, when DePaul officially scaled back on pandemic safety measures for the 2022-2023 academic year.
DePaul is not the only institution re-thinking its COVID-19 policies.
President Joe Biden recently announced that he plans on ending the national and public emergencies addressing COVID-19 on May 11, assuring that most of the world has resorted back to normalcy within the past three years.
True says that the effects of COVID-19 will still remain, even if things are “back to normal.”
“Even if we let the public health emergency expire and everybody wants to get back to normal, the fact of the matter is: people are still going to be affected by this at DePaul, and this is still going to cause cases of long COVID-19 at DePaul,” says True. “We need to have those contingency plans now to make sure that those folks don’t have to lose educational opportunities.”
Another consequence of ending the COVID-19 emergency will be rising prices for health necessities. Many insurance companies will discontinue covering the costs of COVID-19 vaccines after it is no longer categorized as an emergency.
For those without insurance, it is possible the costs of vaccines could skyrocket within the next few months. People could pay over $100 for vaccines. Pfizer declared that their vaccines will start at $110 per dose. Yet, Moderna has assured the public that their vaccine will remain free. The Johnson & Johnson company has not revealed the potential costs of their doses after May 11.
Public health authorities are encouraging everyone to get all of the shots they need before free or low-cost coverage ends.
According to Nick Spinelli, a public affairs specialist at the CDC, the CDC will not change its approach to COVID-19 reporting after the emergency is over.
“There are currently no planned changes to how COVID-19 mortality data are collected or reported,” Spinelli said.
It may be harder for some to obtain a test with the expected rising costs for certain vaccines, but the CDC will still closely monitor COVID-19 in the U.S.
DePaul, however, will likely still be in the dark.
Header Illustration by Madeline Smith