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The GW Hatchet

Serving the GW Community since 1904

The GW Hatchet

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Crime log: Subject barred after shoplifting at bookstore
By Max Porter, Contributing News Editor • February 26, 2024

Officials quiet on prep for future pandemic response, COVID upticks

The University rolled back nearly all COVID policies last spring, falling out of line with 10 of GW’s 12 peer schools.
Students+in+the+University+Student+Center+sat+masked+at+tables+during+the+spring+2022+semester%2C+only+removing+their+masks+to+eat.
File Photo by Danielle Towers | Assistant Photo Editor
Students in the University Student Center sat masked at tables during the spring 2022 semester, only removing their masks to eat.

More than three years after GW first shut down campus during COVID-19, officials remain quiet on their preparations for responding to future pandemics — or a potential resurgence of COVID — after pulling back nearly all COVID-related policies last spring.

Officials announced the end of GW’s COVID-19 vaccine requirement, contact tracing and testing services in May following a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announcement ending the federal public health emergency. While officials said they are continuing to monitor the state of COVID on campus and will adjust their policies when necessary, the University is an outlier in its rollback of COVID policies among its 12 peer schools — 10 of which continue to offer on-campus testing following the CDC’s announcement.

This semester, the University “strongly recommends” — but does not require — GW community members be vaccinated against COVID and masking remains optional but may be required in some spaces, like some health care facilities, according to the University’s COVID-19 guidance. The guidance states that GW no longer offers COVID testing through the University and that community members can find PCR tests at physicians’ offices and local pharmacies and antigen test kits at pharmacies and retail stores.

Officials will continue to monitor “federal and local guidance, research and data and the incidence of COVID-19 on our campuses,” to best support community members’ health and safety, according to GW’s COVID-19 guidance. University spokesperson Julia Metjian did not specify how officials will track cases on campus after discontinuing contact tracing last spring.

Metjian added that GW community members should follow the CDC’s COVID guidance for isolation, testing, masking, vaccination and symptom monitoring — especially after testing positive — but did not specify how officials will ensure students have access to tests after ending campus testing services.

Metjian also declined to say what officials learned from the pandemic and how they will apply what they learned in the future.

“We are grateful to the public health and medical experts who guided the university through the pandemic, which positioned us to maintain public health preparedness,” Metjian said in an email.

An Ngo | Graphics Editor

Of GW and its 12 peer schools, only three — GW, New York and Wake Forest universities — do not offer any type of on-campus COVID testing.

Five peer schools offer symptomatic PCR tests by appointment through their university health services. The Universities of Rochester and Southern California and Syracuse and Georgetown University offer free at-home test kits on their campuses.

Like GW, 11 of 12 peer schools do not require students to be vaccinated against COVID. The University of Pittsburgh is the only of GW’s peer schools to still require vaccination.

Students said they had difficulty getting tested for COVID this semester now that GW no longer offers on-campus tests.

Brenden Goldman, a sophomore studying economics and applied mathematics, said both CVS stores on campus — located in Western Market and on E Street — were sold out of at-home COVID test kits when he tried to buy one after a friend exposed him to COVID last week. He said both pharmacies do not offer PCR test appointments and that the nearest available appointment was two days later at a CVS in Dupont Circle.

He said when he called the Student Health Center to take a COVID test, staff referred him to University policy, which states that PCR tests are only available through physicians and local pharmacies. He said the University should offer on-campus COVID testing despite the national emergency ending in May.

“It’s something that is very important for students to have access to in the future,” Goldman said. “COVID is not going away just because it’s not an emergency.”

Rory Boedeker, a junior studying political communication, said she called both on-campus CVS locations, and they were sold out of at-home test kits when she had COVID symptoms late last month. She said she wishes GW had free, on-campus COVID testing because she had to walk to Dupont Circle to buy an at-home test while she felt “really sick.”

“I googled ‘GW COVID testing,’ and when it said they didn’t have tests, I was really upset,” Boedeker said. “That would just be so much easier than having to go to Dupont.”

The CVS in Western Market had one remaining at-home COVID test kit and the E Street CVS was sold out of test kits as of Sunday.

The University canceled classes and Commencement on March 16, 2020 — less than a week after Mayor Muriel Bowser declared a state of emergency in the District. All courses remained online until summer 2021, when GW began a “phased reopening” by allowing some summer courses to meet in person. The University resumed all in-person classes in August 2021 with a vaccination requirement for on-campus community members.

Officials accepted about $13.7 million from the federal stimulus package in March 2021 and directed $9.2 million to offset the costs of GW’s COVID testing services that same month. The federal funding ended after the end of the national public health emergency.

A Hatchet analysis in early February determined that GW was the only “large” and “urban” university with a mask mandate at the time. Officials ended the mandate in instructional settings by the end of that month.

Infectious disease experts said universities should communicate with state health departments and establish organizational structures to prepare for future infectious disease outbreaks.

William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, said it “surprises” him that GW does not offer any on-campus COVID testing for students. He said freely available tests on college campuses are a good idea to expedite COVID diagnoses, particularly for students who are predisposed to more severe illness.

Schaffner said universities should collaborate with state health departments who track cases, hospitalizations and deaths to monitor COVID and determine if they should change protocols.

“By being closely associated with local health departments and having constant conversations with the student health service, you can get a good assessment of what the local circumstances are, in regards to COVID,” Schaffner said.

Robert Wachter, a professor and the chair of the Department of Medicine at the University of California San Francisco, said universities should develop a permanent “nonemergency mode” practice and policy for their future response to COVID on campus. He said he is a “big believer” in at-home testing when sick and that at-home tests should be accessible to students to prevent the spread of COVID.

Wachter said universities should have an established plan that includes who will be in charge of making decisions and how the university will balance health threats with the desire to keep campus open to prepare for a future pandemic or infectious disease outbreak. He said universities need to consider how quickly they must mobilize if there is another infectious disease.

“The next pandemic could come next week and it could come in 15 years,” Wachter said. “The next pandemic could look a lot like COVID and could look totally different in terms of the way it’s spread, so there’s only so much you can do to plan. When there is a threat, how do we learn about it? How do we react? How do we communicate? Who’s in charge? Those are the things I’d be making sure I’ve got an off-the-shelf plan that I can operationalize on day one.”

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About the Contributor
Rory Quealy, Assistant News Editor
Rory Quealy is a sophomore majoring in journalism and mass communications from La Grange, Illinois. She is the 2023-2024 assistant news editor for the Health and Research beat.
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