Editorial: COVID-19, college openings and ensuring each other's well being

With news a couple of weeks ago that Middlebury College would be opening this fall with students on campus, even with ample precautions implemented, it is to be expected that local reactions would be mixed. 

The business community was largely in favor acutely aware, as they are, of the economic impact the college community has on the greater Middlebury area. So, too, is it reasonable for those nearby residents without business connections to be concerned about the increased likelihood of spreading the virus as some 2,000 students are reunited from all corners of the nation and globe. As a community, it is our collective responsibility to take the time to bear witness to all concerns and react accordingly.

To that end, area residents should know that the town, college, area health care officials and members of the medical community have been meeting weekly since early March to coordinate health care strategies and plans in relation to the ongoing pandemic. And more recently, in early June, the college established a Health Communications Task Force that will share vital information with students and the community in regard to Covid-19 and reopening the Middlebury campus. Know, too, that this spring and summer the college worked with the town and Porter Hospital to keep local healthcare workers well, to provide safe housing for medical workers and other facilities if needed, to share personal protective equipment, provide meals for community groups and much more. That town-gown partnership was embodied in the MICE group, which stands for Middlebury Information Sharing in a COVID Emergency, and which meets regularly to exchange critical information and receive feedback from the community.

Crucially, the platform for informational exchange is well established ahead of the college’s fall opening. That doesn’t mean the potential for the virus to spread is lessened, but it does mean the community’s ability to react is greatly enhanced as long as transparency is mutually established.

What lessens the likelihood of spreading the disease are the protocols put in place by the college. 

According to a memo to the community released Tuesday by Middlebury College President Laurie Patton, she outlines the college’s intentions to go above and beyond state guidelines for allowing students on campus. Included in those guidelines for students will be a mandatory policy, initially, to wear face coverings while moving about common spaces (a stricter policy that the state set); while the state is allowing students from certain states to skip quarantining, the college will mandate that all students self-quarantine for 14 days pre-arrival, and will room quarantine once on campus and will move to campus quarantine if they receive a negative day-zero COVID test; Middlebury will test all students on day zero regardless of mode of travel or location (again a policy that is stricter than the state’s), and the college will require daily health checks for all faculty, staff and students — along with a dozen or more other precautions.

If Middlebury-area residents would be so diligent, we would truly have few worries. 

Are there concerns? Of course. Anytime you have 2,000 or so people intermingling in a relatively tight-knit community, there is the potential to spread a highly infectious disease — and that is what COVID-19 is. But we face the same concerns now as thousands of out-of-state guests visit our towns, share our streets and trails, restaurants and shops. We all must acknowledge that and take personal responsibility to do the best we each can to avoid infection.

Managing this potential risk is what Vermonters and Americans will be doing for much of the next year or more until a vaccine is developed and in wide circulation. Nor is it practical, or desirable, to shut down our lives while a proven vaccine is made available. We can’t realistically close our businesses, industries, colleges, elementary and primary schools, recreational pursuits, medical practices and the hundreds of other professional services and business transactions we engage in daily until it is absolutely safe. 

Rather, like living with the potential of getting Lyme disease from a tick bite, or being injured in a car accident, we have to mitigate the risks as best we can as we cautiously move forward.

As citizens, our responsibility is to learn from those around us and employ best practices to keep the virus contained. Importantly, the medical profession now knows the virus is likely spread by tiny aerosol droplets as well as water droplets. That means wearing face coverings is an important measure to help prevent the spread of the virus — and is most likely one of the reasons the virus has spread so broadly in this country, while in much of Europe and Asia the virus has been more effectively contained. Only now is the Trump administration reluctantly confronting that reality. 

To that end, Middlebury’s recent resolution to wear face coverings when in public takes on greater importance and the town selectboard might want to reconsider instituting a mandatory ordinance for at least the first month or so after the college reopens this September. If we are all on the same page, students and residents, the challenge to ensure each other’s well being is equally shared and will have a greater chance of success.

Angelo Lynn

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Addison County Independent

58 Maple Street
Middlebury, VT 05753

Phone: 802.388.4944
Fax: 802.388.3100