By Joe Badalamenti
Recently, Binghamton University has increased its COVID testing capacity back to Spring 2021 levels. This change was in response to a rise in COVID cases, as stated in a recent B-line email. The B-line states that this measure will reassure the student body of their protection. While this may sound reassuring, such a testing regimen can only lead to the return of restrictions at the expense of freedom on campus.
When designing a system to test for a pathogen such as COVID, one has several options. One option is to test only symptomatic individuals, a common sense decision with several benefits. First, students showing symptoms of COVID can see if they have the virus and what steps to take in order to treat themselves. Moreover, this system places no strain on the students who have no reason to believe they have contracted COVID. Finally, this system is economically sound, as it uses a low amount of resources in order to monitor the number of COVID cases in the student body. If one were to create a testing system, this appears to be the most sensible option. However, there is a problem: Cable news and public health bureaucracy have spread word of the asymptomatic spread of COVID. This leads the university to the next option: test anyone who has come into contact with someone with COVID. This option addresses the number of asymptomatic cases in addition to the clear symptomatic cases. This however has feasibility issues given the flaws of contract tracing. For example, if someone with COVID was in a crowded hallway before they tested positive, how would they contact everyone in the area? Contact tracing can also stigmatize groups or associations where the virus has been spread. This leaves only one option: test everyone on a regular basis. With this option, no COVID case will go unnoticed. Unlike the previous systems, this system requires a mass testing apparatus in order to supply the required tests, though logistics are no matter to a university with thousands of dollars to throw at COVID tests. Thus in the Spring of 2021, the mass testing apparatus was brought to Binghamton University as well as other educational institutions.
While the mass testing approach may seem prudent, there are plenty of implications associated with the system. The main implication is the attention brought to asymptomatic COVID cases. Despite having no need for treatment and contributing much less to the spread of COVID than symptomatic individuals , asymptomatic cases are treated equally to symptomatic and even severe COVID cases. From a medical standpoint, paying attention to asymptomatic cases is illogical and a waste of time since there are others who require more, if not immediate, attention from their more severe symptoms. Wasn’t the point of 560, and counting, days to flatten the curve to prevent the overflow of health systems to deal with significant cases? Asymptomatic individuals have nonetheless been subject to the forced quarantine measures if a COVID test were to come up positive. The equivalence of asymptomatic COVID cases to symptomatic cases also inflates the threat of COVID among the community. This gives the university administration capital to keep or reimplement restrictive measures such as masks, occupancy limits, and more, even as immunity from prior infection and vaccines reduce the threat by the day. If one were to argue against such a measure, all the administration needs to do is point at the number of cases and most students would welcome the novel regulations. Meanwhile, the infection fatality rate for a typical college student, 18-22 years old, is an estimated .0014% . This means that for every 71,430 students who contract COVID, only one will die. Even if the university could flawlessly control the number of COVID cases, statistics such as these really make you question the need for all the rhetoric and regulations. A rise in COVID cases may sound concerning, but if most of the cases are not severe, then there is no need to reimpose regulations.
One of the latest medical innovations since the start of the COVID outbreak is the at-home COVID test. The at-home test is a purchasable kit that can test for COVID in the convenience and privacy of one’s own home. Such innovations bring to light an alternative to the mass testing regime: individual control measures. This system operates very similarly to the first testing system discussed. Given the at-home kit costs about $25, only those who are confident that they might have the disease will purchase the kit. If the individual tests positive, they can use their own discretion to treat their symptoms and prevent spreading COVID. This is made easy by the transition of classes and food shopping to online means. This voluntary isolation is reinforced by the fact that their condition would hamper their ability to do anything worthwhile. Once the individual has recovered, after a non-arbitrary amount of time, they can resume their lives with little risk of spreading COVID. Consideration of a voluntary system shows the flaws of the university’s centrally coordinated system
In the time that I have written this, The university has confiscated the office space for student clubs located in Old Rafuse. The justification was to make room for quarantined students. It’s clear that many of the responses meant to deal with COVID cause more harm than benefit to the students. While we have been promised a return to normal in light of the vaccine, the university administration continues to go back on this promise as testing increases and cases rise. The only way to prevent more privileges from being lost is through the adoption of a voluntary COVID testing system.