On the evening before the first day of the fall semester, the University informed us that masks would be required again within the classroom for the next 30 days. It felt like a step backwards after so much progress in the fight against COVID-19.
Nevertheless, the classroom mask mandate, while controversial to some, is necessary and a result of our own actions.
The Delta variant is at least three times as infectious as previous variants of the virus, which was already an incredibly infectious disease.
The CDC has described it as “more transmissible than the common cold and influenza.”
Along with being more infectious, some studies have shown the Delta variant to be more virulent to unvaccinated members of the population. This means that this strain is more aggressive and results in a more severe illness, and likely hospitalization. Currently, our hospitals are too overwhelmed and too overworked to handle more serious COVID-19 infections.
With the Delta variant becoming the dominant strain of the virus, along with the significant number of people still unvaccinated, mandating masks is essential for the safety of students, faculty and staff.
We were given the opportunity to prevent the mask mandate from happening, most recently through reaching 80% vaccination by Sept. 1. However, it is unlikely that we will reach this percentage by that date, which along with the Delta variant, spurred the decision to mandate masks.
At the time of this writing, we have only reached 67% faculty/staff and 68% student vaccination rates. Approximately 10,000 members of our West Virginia University community have not verified their vaccination status, and only 15% of them have provided a negative COVID-19 test result.
This leaves the community vulnerable to not only the Delta variant, but it gives the virus the chance to evolve even further into potentially more dangerous variants. Over the summer in West Virginia, we saw a decrease in hospitalization, ICU admission and ventilator use to combat COVID-19. Just in August, we have seen all of these begin to increase to numbers seen in February of this year and they continue to grow daily.
The most viable solution to quickly combat these trends without canceling classes is mandating masks, and there is more than enough evidence to back this decision.
The bottom line is, we need to protect ourselves and other vulnerable populations from the Delta variant and future strains of COVID-19. Studies have shown that communities compliant with mask wearing can reduce the risk of transmission by roughly 70%.
The best way to protect yourself and reduce the risk of hospitalization is through vaccination. Just this week, the Food and Drug Administration granted full approval to the Pfizer-Biotech vaccine; further emphasizing that this vaccine more than met the high safety, effectiveness and manufacturing standards of the FDA. But with continued vaccination refusal, mask mandates will likely continue to be the reality for the school year.
By pulling together with a combination of masks and continued vaccination, a return to a normal college experience is well within the realm of possibility, but that requires us to be uncomfortable for a short while and to trust the research-backed science that went into the vaccine effort.
Masks, along with vaccination, are our best chances at stopping the Delta variant from running wild. It requires us to be individually responsible and do our part to slow down the spread.
Alec Phelps is President of the WVU Pre-Medical Club and a Senior Biology Major/Minor in Medical Humanities and Health Studies.