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By Owen Sizemore
As summer break for students officially passes its halfway mark, many are in good spirits. New reported COVID-19 cases across both the nation and the state of North Carolina are at some of their lowest numbers since March 2020. Mask mandates, gathering limits, social distancing guidelines, and other precautionary measures that had been in place for nearly a year-and-a-half are, for all intents and purposes, completely gone. Students have a lot to look forward to with their eyes on an in-person fall semester complete with face-to-face instruction, full-capacity sporting events and an overall bustling campus of new and returning students.
Our nation’s return to a “normal” way of living is unquestionably the result of mass vaccination throughout the past six months. As of this article’s publishing, The New York Times reports that 55% of Americans have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, with 48% fully vaccinated. And while the rate at which unvaccinated people get their shot is dwindling, there are nonetheless 160 million fully vaccinated Americans that have slowed the spread of COVID-19 dramatically.
For many, myself included, this summer has felt like the most “normal” time in what seems like an eternity. I have had the privilege of spending close time with friends, family and co-workers wherever and however I please because I got my shot. The science is abundantly clear: if you are fully vaccinated, you can go almost anywhere and do almost anything without risk of severe sickness or hospitalization.
For unvaccinated Americans, however, enjoying their summer without fear of sickness is ignorant at best – and deadly at worst. According to the CDC, more than 99% of COVID-related deaths in June were among unvaccinated people. Personal feelings and political beliefs aside, the facts speak for themselves: if you choose to go unvaccinated, you are putting yourself at immense risk of severe illness, particularly as the highly transmissible delta variant of COVID-19 now represents the majority of new cases across the country.
The delta variant brings with it new challenges that vaccinated and unvaccinated Americans alike will face. As a result of its highly transmissible nature, combined with the fact that millions of Americans still haven’t received their shot, both The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal report a 94% COVID-19 case increase nationally over the past 2 weeks. As sad as it may be, we are not done dealing with COVID-19 anytime soon. As long as Americans are still getting sick by the thousands and dying by the hundreds each day, with the potential for these numbers to grow, COVID-19 will continue to be at the forefront of our personal and social lives.
So, what does this mean for college communities? It means that until schools and their surrounding counties can keep new COVID-19 case numbers low and vaccination numbers high, this fall will likely look a lot like the last one, with strict limits on in-person classes, gatherings and events. Colleges and universities simply cannot take the risk of fully “re-opening” their campuses if students are going to be sick; it hurts their bottom line immensely as they pay for routine testing for unvaccinated people, provide personal and medical services to those infected or in quarantine, and miss out on ticket sales and revenue from sports games that are now forced to reduce their capacity for fans. The condition for colleges and universities to manage the fall semester in a “normal” way is a simple one: members of the school community, particularly students, must be protected from COVID-19 through vaccination.
I have spoken with many friends and family members who tell me that they’re “waiting for the right time” to get the vaccine. Maybe in their minds, that time is the end of the summer, or perhaps the end of this year. If you're one of those people, I deeply hope you understand that there is no better time than right now to get vaccinated.
I am aware that many are anxious of potential adverse health effects that may come from receiving a vaccine. It’s true: COVID-19 vaccines, like many other forms of preventative medicine, come with risks. However, this risk is microscopic compared to the threat of infection or hospitalization from COVID-19 should you choose to go unvaccinated. Bloomberg reported that for every million people vaccinated in the United States, just 2 to 5 of them will have a severe allergic reaction to the vaccine. And even if you aren’t concerned about your personal health, colleges and universities are waiting to make critical decisions on how their schools will be operating based on student vaccination numbers. It doesn’t make sense to remove social distancing and mask-wearing policies if administrators have no idea whether their student body can safely navigate such an environment. But with enough students fully vaccinated, schools can remove these precautions without worry.
The summer is almost over, and in a matter of weeks thousands of college students across North Carolina will be back in the classroom. Right now, we have the power to choose what we want that classroom to look like. If we enter the fall semester with a majority of students fully vaccinated, I am confident that we will be happily sitting in classrooms and lecture halls across campus, engaged in personal and meaningful learning that we have missed out on for nearly two years. However, if we fail to step up to the challenge and vaccination numbers remain low, I expect another grueling semester behind the webcams of our laptops. Let’s make the right decision: get vaccinated as soon as you can and encourage your friends and classmates to do the same. ●
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