August 31, 2021

GUEST ROOM | A Lamentation from My Room in Isolation

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This morning I was on the phone for an hour with a Tompkins County Health Department contact tracer. She was calling the long list of students who had, like me, just tested positive for COVID-19. 

Over the course of the call, it felt as though we had a transient friendship as I took her through every place and person I had encountered over my last two weeks like a personal diary. She shared her own experiences that overlapped with mine. We broke through the fabric that commonly shrouds bureaucratic phone calls when it was clear there was a human being on both ends of the line as she genuinely wanted to check on how I was feeling and opened up about the pandemic as she saw it.  Then she mentioned something that truly struck me:

She couldn’t wrap her head around Matthew Samilow’s Sun article “Cornell’s Virus Restrictions Defy Reason.” In this article, Samilow calls indoor mask mandates at Cornell a “burdensome restriction for which the costs heavily outweigh any benefits.” She continuously emphasized that wearing masks is such a small inconvenience on campus when it means you are protecting the larger Ithaca community, vaccinated or not. She wished she could write a response to this article from her perspective, a service worker on the phone all day with COVID patients. 

I told her I would write that response for her (I have plenty of time to do so, being isolated in my room). The fact she had been religiously keeping up with what students had to say about COVID in The Sun illustrated just how much Ithaca as a city is keeping an eye on our hill. Not just out of morbid curiosity, but out of concern that their children, too young to be vaccinated, will fall ill returning back to school.  Concern that if they catch meningitis, Ithaca’s limited hospital capacity will be too full of COVID cases to help them. Concern that Cornell students care more about not wearing a piece of cloth over their mouth during lectures than they do about their larger community. We have to remember that for many of us, we are only guests here in Ithaca. Samilow’s article discusses how a campus of vaccinated 18-22-year-olds are capable of “returning to normal life with a minimal level of risk,” but this sentiment neglects an entire community representing all ages and abilities. Cornell is not a bubble that can simply pretend a pandemic doesn’t exist while its surrounding communities have to face that reality every single day. 

It is a reality that many fully vaccinated 18-22-year-olds are, in fact, facing on Cornell’s campus at this present moment. When I experienced some cold-like symptoms when I arrived in Ithaca, I shrugged them off as allergies because in my mind Pfizer had made me practically invincible. I was comfortable traveling and visiting family without a second thought. Even prior to being vaccinated, I luckily didn’t catch anything when my COVID-positive mom gave me a hug. I would hear news of the Delta variant spreading, but it didn’t affect me, especially when I would be returning to my Cornell bubble: a utopia where everyone was vaccinated and our actions had no dire consequences, where life could be “normal.” I was even more optimistic hearing that there was now live music in the Commons with maskless dining and dancing. I felt invincible. 

We don’t assess our shortcomings until we build wings out of wax and fly too close to the sun, but I didn’t catch a breakthrough case of COVID participating in risky behaviors like parties and concerts; I caught it at the airport, fully vaccinated. As Samilow said, I will not be hospitalized or die of this illness, but it definitely feels awful not being able to smell or taste any of my meals, shivering in bed with a fever. What Samilow gets wrong is that it should be common courtesy to wear a mask indoors, because I do not wish any of these symptoms on anyone else, no matter how “minor” they may be. 

Masks actually have saved many of my classmates from experiencing what I am feeling right now. I received my positive test result after I had already attended the first day of class, thinking I was just having a flare-up of allergies. Since I was wearing a mask the entire class, no one in my group was sprayed by a rogue cough. Samilow wrote that masks would cause “tremendous harm” to our ability to enjoy Cornell this year, even stating that the costs of wearing them on campus heavily outweighed the benefits, but he never specified what these “costs” were. My class joked about how we couldn’t wait to take off the sweaty things when the four-hour class was over, but if we hadn’t all been urged by Cornell (and our consciences) to wear them, I would’ve directly subjected my peers to my sickness. I would take a slight inconvenience any day in order to be able to safely go to class in person, because most of us know someone who is immunocompromised. Masks don’t take away from our college experience like Samilow surmises; they give it to us. 

Samilow points out the hypocrisy that if restaurants don’t require masks, classes shouldn’t either. This is a false equivalency. We mask in class because who knows what others are doing while unmasked. We also don’t eat while in class and I am not going to restaurants every day to get a degree. Going out to eat is not an essential activity, and if Ithacans feel comfortable doing so without a mask, it is their choice to live their lives. However, when students go out to party with each other on weekends, we don’t want them coughing up an unprotected lung next to us in a lecture. Going to class is not a fun little prerogative like a house party or restaurant. There is a sanctuary in education that shouldn’t mirror the carelessness of a wild night out. 

That being said, the University is nowhere close to being an all-knowing authority on handling a pandemic on campus and it is important to question their wisdom. In another article, Samilow points out many of the ways Cornell has implemented restrictions without using scientific data to support them such as outdoor mask requirements. Yet the most pressing of these shortcomings is not mask mandates, but Cornell’s system of arrival testing (or lack thereof). I should not have been able to go to the first day of class, completely unaware that the arrival test I took the day before was positive. I even had a negative COVID test two days before I landed in Ithaca, but this gave me a false sense of security. Even when I received the positive result via text from the New York State Department of Health, Cornell didn’t reach out for another day about what to do. The text only told me to “immediately isolate yourself and contact your doctor,” so I ran to my room and shut the door, unsure what the next steps entailed. No one provided information about what the people I had contact with were supposed to do. My housemates sat outside my door speaking to me through the wall about whether they were supposed to isolate as well and we had to google the new protocol. My contacts tried scheduling COVID tests through Cornell, but all the time slots were full. They had to go to the Ithaca Mall to get supplemental testing, and even before their results came back, Cornell Health said it was fine for them to go to class. 

Cornell should have required a negative arrival test before allowing access to campus. Students were fully moving into dorms, visiting friends, and going to large gatherings without having one arrival test scheduled, completely unaware they had (or could even get) COVID. When 20,000 students like me came flying into Ithaca from all around the world, Cornell didn’t make arrival testing a priority. 

I am thankful for the chance to have an entirely in-person senior year, and I attribute masks and the vaccine for allowing that to be a reality. I can’t even think about complaining about them now, even if we’re all nostalgic for what once was — being able to sneeze all over our classrooms like we were inoculating a petri dish. I’m sure Samilow did not foresee this spike of cases among the vaccinated 18-22-year-olds in his recent article critical of lecture hall mask-wearing. Like me, he probably saw visions of utopia promised by vaccines and time. However, my vision of such a utopia has been hindered by my first week of classes spent in isolation. My vision of utopia has been shifted by the reins of a very straightforward trolley problem. “Normal” has become a world that will be as it once was, just a little different: a world that tries to inflict the least amount of harm on the greater community.

Gillian Harrill is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.  Comments can be sent to [email protected]Guest Rooms run periodically throughout the semester.