The relentless political rhetoric around mask mandates has shifted our focus away from the actual problem. There are countless stories about heated school board fights over whether or not masks should be an issue of student choice. Pandemic precautions have become more about an individual's stance on freedom than what most of us prioritize in principle: people's health.
With the credibility of its pandemic policies at stake — and given its access to health and scientific resources — The University of Wisconsin-Madison was right to revoke the mask mandate on March 12. Though approaching the precaution with a more scientific mindset, the university is using its unique position to help shift the focus away from frivolous political rhetoric and toward public safety.
When the Delta variant was surging in early January of 2022, there was a daily average of 1,407 cases and 190 hospitalizations. Now there are around 60 cases per day and 47 hospitalizations. Dane county is now considered to be in the “low” level according to the new CDC metrics based on the number of hospital beds occupied by COVID-19 patients. The CDC guidelines for communities in the low area state that individuals should “wear a mask based on [their] own personal preference, informed by [their] personal level of risk.”
The personal freedom debates often arise when individuals do not believe that the precautions are needed to keep them safer. UW-Madison policies should reflect the CDC guidelines that correspond to the state of the virus in our community so that the relationship between public health and the purpose of the policies is more likely to be seen as credible.
Even as the mask mandate will be lifted, some pandmeic policies will still be in place. The university is still providing COVID-19 vaccinations to its students and staff, and is distributing masks and antigen tests to people for free. Additionally, the UW-Madison campus population is 95-96%vaccinated.
With these resources still available, there is no reason for UW-Madison to be overly cautious because the risk that members of the university community will contract COVID-19 is minimally different from the risk that they will contract any other similarly contagious disease.
“There probably is no perfect time to make these decisions. There has to be a bit of a trade off and the time is now right to make this decision,” says Dr. Nasia Saptar, Associate Dean of Clinical Trials and a professor at the UW-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health, in the recent campus forum on mask mandates.
If it were not safe, we would not have a conversation about removing the mask mandate given the professional opinions and public health data taken into account. Many UW-Madison faculty, such as Saptar, are experts on COVID-19 transmission and have been at the forefront of understanding this virus.
As further confirmed by John Zumbrunnen, Vice Provost of Teaching and Learning, the university will continue to defer to the guidance of medical professionals, adapting policies as needed.
The university is utilizing its ability to keep its community safe and the wealth of knowledge that it has access to increase the effectiveness of campus pandemic policies. By my observation, the only time of the night when all students in the Bradley basement put on their masks in the weeks leading to Spring Break was when a house fellow or campus employee was in the vicinity. This is in contrast to the beginning of the term, when I noted almost all Bradley residents wearing their masks, a time when cases were relatively high and full time in-person schooling was pending.
As the school year progressed, the sense that students needed to comply with the mandate decreased. I heard about the Delta variant from the news a few days after the first breakout cases. I could not tell from the behavior around me. The policies were the same before the surge of the delta variant as they were during despite the higher public health risk. There seemed to be no increase in the seriousness with which the average student behaved with regard to the policy despite the increased gravity of the situation. The connection between the state of the pandemic and the purpose of the policy was no longer clear like it was at the beginning of the year so Bradley residents began to see masks as more of a nuisance and less of a safety precaution. Consequently, they began to wear them only when they thought they would be caught.
Any precaution that wants to seriously promote student health needs to shape student behavior beyond just the areas that the university can control. The mask mandate did not carry much weight outside of university facilities as the majority of late night gatherings do not involve masks.
It would be more effective for virus prevention if students saw precautions less as daily annoyances and more as measures of the state of the pandemic and guidance on how they should behave accordingly. A precaution is only effective when people follow it and people are unlikely to comply if they do not understand how their safety is on the line.
The prevalent freedom of choice versus regulations rhetoric around pandemic precautions makes it seem as if we have two options: to live as if we are in a pandemic or not. People need to understand that there is not going to be a day when the pandemic is completely behind us. If the case numbers and hospitalizations rise drastically this March, the mask mandate will be reinstated to keep campus safe.
UW-Madison has an obligation both from an educational and safety standpoint to sift through the misleading political jargon and respond to the pandemic in ways that best protect our safety both in the short and long term. The best way to shift the focus away from the frivolous personal freedom debates and instead toward an understanding that policies should reflect the ever evolving state of the pandemic is through scientific pragmatism not blanket requirements.
It is about time that we make the distinction between the scientific facts surrounding our health and our political stance.
Natalie (Nat) Suri is a freshman double majoring in History and Political Science. Do you agree with UW-Madison's decision to revoke the mask mandate? Send all comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.