September 9, 2020

CHANG | Cornell, Make Medical Ethics a Priority

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The ethics of COVID-19 are brutal. In March, we witnessed an elderly Italian priest give up his ventilator, knowing that he would almost certainly die without mechanical medical support. Later, we discussed how doctors and nurses would make painful decisions about distributing medical supplies, making use of their bioethics class that they may have taken lightly while in medical school. Now, as students on campus, we’re constantly battling with HIPPA violations, privacy issues and navigating the minefield of COVID-related ethical questions without proper training and information.

Though the number of cases of the virus on the Ithaca campus has been increasing over the past week, the absolute number is still such that few Cornell students may know or be in contact with an individual who has tested positive for the virus. That’s certainly good for the moment, but it seems increasingly likely that a large portion of students on campus will either be infected with the virus or know someone who will be infected this semester. What do we do in these cases? Who can we disclose this information to? What’s our responsibility to our peers and the Ithaca community at large when we find out we’ve been exposed?

These are tough questions to answer but good questions to ask. I found myself asking these questions just a few days ago, when I found out that I’d been in close contact (defined as being closer than 6 feet for more than 10 minutes) with someone who’d tested positive, in contact (but not close contact) with someone else who’d tested positive, and in close contact with someone who had COVID-like symptoms but later tested negative for the virus. Each of these situations was completely unexpected, and I would’ve never thought that I’d have any of these issues: I’d consider myself relatively conservative with respect to social gatherings, I follow all the rules and always wear a face covering.

Yet, it happened. Because, I suppose, in this weird semester, anything could happen to anybody, even if you stayed at home. In each of those situations, I wasn’t exactly sure what to do. Of course, I filled out the daily check accurately and honestly, and was directed to Cornell Health as needed. The nurses I spoke to were kind and helped a lot, but very little direction was given as to how to and who to notify. This, to me, makes sense to some degree, just like how it “makes sense” to have a massive system breakdown of the daily check on day one, how it “makes sense” to put the salad under the flatbread at Mac’s and how it “makes sense” to have both an Olin Library and an Olin Hall. Not a justification, but one could see how it could happen; in this case, the pragmatic information about the next steps for testing and isolation outweighed the necessity of providing emotional support and information about notifying the right parties.

My experience isn’t over yet, and it’s incredibly likely that these situations will occur over and over again for me and other students throughout the semester if Cornell remains open. There are tons of good (and bad) reasons to not disclose medical information in various COVID-related situations. Perhaps someone is simply not emotionally ready to deal with all the questions, as a positive test result (or even isolating) invariably comes with questions that are emotionally heavy and privacy-invading. Perhaps parents can’t enter the conversation because of financial reasons. At the same time, we each have a responsibility to the community and student body to do our best to stop the spread of the virus.

So far, the administration and Cornell Health staff have primarily relied on common sense with a smattering of contact tracing programs alluded to in emails from President Pollack. Common sense, however, can’t be the only measure we rely on to keep us safe as a community. There has to be more information and resources available for students who find themselves in precarious ethical situations. Students should not be left alone and wondering — there’s already enough to deal with this semester. The Cornell COVID site could have a section that outlines exactly who is supposed to say what to whom in each situation. There should be a centralized location that demystifies what to do if your friend or housemate gets COVID-19, explaining how to be supportive and safe and what resources for mental health are available. We already have this information for ourselves if we are a patient, but this virus doesn’t just affect the patient. An ethics hotline could be created for students to get a better grasp on any questions they may have.

Answering the ethical questions of how students should act and react in an atmosphere filled with no small amount of panic was a task that the administration overlooked — another student grievance in the long list that has (in just the first week of class) run the gamut from financial aid to quarantine food. There may be no student uprising, but Cornell shouldn’t be surprised if there’s more confusion without more transparency.

Darren Chang is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Swamp Snorkeling runs alternate Thursdays this semester.