CWRU drops mask mandate

Nihal Manjila, Staff Writer

On March 16, Case Western Reserve University administration gave an update regarding the university’s COVID-19 policy. Administration members Carolyn Gregory and Lou Stark reported the university’s positivity rate as less than 1%—a significant drop from 5% a month ago. Gregory and Stark also reported Cuyahoga County’s positivity rate as slightly more than 2%. Cuyahoga County’s daily new cases had peaked in the middle of January and have, for the most part, been gradually dropping since, with the Cuyahoga County, Ohio Covid Case and Risk Tracker run by the New York Times showing daily new cases as low as 50 on March 15. Cuyahoga County has a population of roughly 1.26 million, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.  

Since coronavirus positivity rates have been very low for over two weeks, Gregory and Stark informed the university community that beginning on March 21, there will be several new policies.

First, masks will be optional for students, faculty and staff with three exceptions: students in learning spaces, individuals in clinical settings and those using university transportation. Surveillance testing will also become optional, unless an individual’s religious or medical accommodations require continued testing. Lastly, COVID-19 vaccination and booster compliance will be required for all members of the university community. Currently, the CWRU COVID-19 Dashboard shows 99.8% vaccination compliance for students and 99.9% vaccination compliance for faculty and staff, with a 64.3% vaccination rate for the overall population of Cuyahoga County. 

One possible risk to community safety is the new BA.2 sublineage of the omicron variant, but this variant has not caused any significant positivity rate spikes in the United States thus far. It seems unlikely that many new variants will develop and proliferate in the short term due to the current decline in spread. 

This is the latest of several COVID policy changes since the beginning of spring 2022, when CWRU  administration announced the implementation of policies in an effort to curtail the spread of COVID-19 amongst the university community for the semester, especially with the Omicron variant running rampant across the United States since the start of winter break. 

First in an email on Jan. 20, Peter Poulos, Gregory and Stark announced that university community members with a CWRU ID could pick up six KN95 masks from four locations around campus. The email also detailed a plan for biweekly surveillance testing for undergraduate students and continued indoor masking requirements. Lastly, the administration relaxed the procedure for approving campus events with less than 50 attendees given that no food or beverages are provided.

Then on Feb. 14, Poulos, Gregory and Stark sent an email to the university community regarding updates to COVID-19 policies. They began by citing a significant drop in the number of cases on campus, which allowed for policy modifications that would go into effect two days later on Feb. 16. The updates included a lift of the masking requirement in residence buildings for fully vaccinated students, as well as relaxed guidelines for events and gatherings. Biweekly surveillance testing remained a requirement for undergraduate students living on campus. To further support these policy changes, the email cited the Cuyahoga County positivity rate dropping from roughly 26% a month prior to roughly 5% at the time of the email. It also reported that 95% of eligible students, faculty, and staff at CWRU were both vaccinated and boosted. 

As spring break approached, there were concerns regarding the effect of travel on campus positivity rates. An email from Gregory and Stark on March 3 expressed their optimism that despite students traveling to and from their spring break destinations, the decreasing positivity rate across many regions would limit COVID-19 spread. This theory will be confirmed or rejected after analyzing results from baseline tests required for undergraduate students and recommended for graduate students, faculty and staff. Gregory and Stark stated that future updates to university COVID-19 policy will be informed by these results. 

Now it seems that even though the baseline tests have not been completed, the aforementioned drop of the mask mandate will still take place. As the situation with the virus has continued to evolve, the university’s response has continued to change as well. Hopefully there will be no need for a reversal of policy in the coming weeks.