The COVID data is positive, so why is one university still masking?

As pandemic numbers improve, making the right decisions on face coverings can be a Catch-22 for higher ed leaders.
By: | October 27, 2021
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Three universities in the past couple of weeks have eased their masking restrictions on campus. Clemson University, the University of Missouri and West Virginia University point to improving COVID-19 data for at least partially lifting face coverings, including in dining halls.

At Clemson, officials have spotted only two positive cases from more than 2,200 tests they’ve conducted of students in the past week. Combined with improving data and vaccination rates across the nation, institutions might be tempted to follow their lead.

But is tossing aside masks for a little extra breathing space still too risky?

“We are in a better place now than we were before,” says Dr. Marc Kiviniemi, professor and Chair of Health, Behavior & Society at the University of Kentucky who specializes in decision making, risk perception and intervention development. “But I think it would be a mistake for us to take that as a sign that everything’s going to be fine. We can’t assume that trend is going to continue down to zero. Delta was a good wake-up call on that. Viruses are amazing little things. There is a danger if we say ‘we’re done now’ that the virus mutates and puts us in a bad place.”

The University of Kentucky doesn’t have a vaccine mandate, but behind its UK Health team and strong messaging from its leaders, it has gotten 90% of its campus population vaccinated. It also has kept transmission low since the start of the fall. Part of the reason is that it does have a mask mandate in all indoor spaces.

“There’s no question based on the science and what we’ve seen epidemiologically that universal mask-wearing is really important for [helping prevent] transmission,” says Kiviniemi, referencing various studies at K-12 schools and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention that show masks work. “There was legitimate concern about coming back, not knowing what proportion of our students was being vaccinated and returning to classrooms that were no longer socially distanced. The mask mandate did an incredible amount, both for legitimate safety and psychological wellbeing, for everybody in the university community. It changed the feel coming back in person in a meaningful way.”

One reason Kentucky has kept masks on is that students, staff and faculty are interconnected with those in neighboring communities and across the Commonwealth, particularly during breaks. While Lexington residents are around 70-75% vaccinated, many counties across the state haven’t even hit 40%.

“Our vaccination rate is 90%, but that’s not true of any of the other places that our students go and interact,” Kiviniemi says. “So we have to keep that in mind.”

Risk vs. reward on masks

University policies across the U.S. have been ever-adapting, following the path and variations of COVID-19. For that reason, more than 1,000 require vaccinations and many more have mask policies. With improving numbers, some have been looking to toss masks while others have been forced into because they couldn’t enforce them, like Northeast Community College in Virginia.

At Clemson and other institutions that have voluntarily lifted them, they’re banking on the good trends. Clemson is still enforcing masks in classes and lab spaces.

“We continue to follow the data and adjust our approach as appropriate to the circumstances,” Provost Bob Jones said in a statement, highlighting his university’s quarter of a million tests conducted already this fall with very few positives.

Kiviniemi says the removal of any protocol has its inherent dangers, though some may be better than others.

“Is it a wise strategy to open? It’s really a balance of risks,” he says. “No strategy is 100% effective, and everything you do to sort of ratchet back increases risk to a certain extent. Having an indoor mask mandate certainly reduces risk. But you can’t eat with a mask on. Taking them off in the dining hall is a reasonable risk-benefit trade-off. Some of the other liftings in smaller groups settings or during class, to me it starts to increase risk without any real benefit. It really doesn’t impede our ability to do the core functions of the university. It’s still a great environment.”

Speaking of environments, few are more vibrant or raucous than the University of Kentucky’s Memorial Coliseum, where its perennial powerhouse basketball team plays. Though college football programs, including Clemson, have packed stadiums without masks and seen very little transmission of the virus on campus this fall, Kentucky has decided keep masks on indoors at games this fall. Kiviniemi says he is proud of his university for taking that stance and has encouraged others to consider it.

“Mask-wearing for close indoor gatherings would reduce the risk of transmission,” he says. “I would strongly advocate for that. It’s a relatively low-cost way to keep the community safe.”

As for a look further ahead, Kiviniemi says masking plus one other mitigation strategy—testing upon returning to campus after the winter break—also might be advisable.

“Would it be wise to retest? I feel like we in higher ed have done so much to get so close to having overcome the pandemic,” he says. “Keeping that vigilance just a little bit longer, I think, is going to be very well worth it to us.”