Confusion over COVID alert levels

By Mikey Halligan

Managing and Visual Design Editor

While weekly COVID-19 testing continues on campus and single-digit positive cases remain steady this semester, many students are confused and frustrated as to why the current “Orange” alert level has not changed.

“I honestly don’t know what is going on with the alert levels,” said Owen Wieland ’22. “Every week, we have been getting really low positivity counts back, so why are we still at the ‘Orange’ level and why aren’t we able to hang out with more people,” he questioned.

The alert levels are set by the College’s Executive Policy Group (EPG). The EPG is comprised of cabinet members (President and Vice-Presidents), and senior staff including the Emergency Management Director, the Director of Health Services, faculty leadership and a few others. It is a function of the College’s broader Emergency Operations Plan that helps set COVID-19 precautions around campus.

“We have a number of factors that we consider regarding the status on campus,” said Doug Babcock, director of Public Safety and member of the EPG. “This includes the actual number of cases and contacts, the relationship between contacts, the trend week to week and more. We also consider the area around us, rising or falling infections in the community, number of hospital beds available, testing resources, etc,” he said.

Although these factors are important in the decision-making process with the current state of the COVID-19 Alert Level, it’s what the students are doing on campus that have the biggest impact. Dawn Ellinwood, vice president for Student Affairs and member of the EPG, said at the Zoom Town Hall meeting on March 11 that students who are violating COVID restrictions are the biggest set back to changing the alert to “Yellow.”

“It’s not just student behavior and gatherings, but it’s also a good amount of students who are missing our mandatory testing each week that plays into this. So, once we get a groove and those numbers go down with conjunction with everything else, then we will most likely move into ‘Yellow’,” she said.

Due to the number of COVID violations and sanctions on campus over the past several weeks, the EPG has been reluctant to ease restrictions.

“We also consider the risk that can come with changing level or easing restrictions, where students become more lax than the new level intends, putting the community at greater risk,” Babcock said.

Alex Bertoni, director of Marketing & Communications and member of the EPG, also emphasized student behavior as part of the problem.

“There have been more sanctions issued this semester. Discussions about moving to Yellow have been held up largely because of conduct issues.”

Babcock also explained that the reason for these low cases is because of the protocols and measures the school is taking. Due to the limitations of group sizes, besides classrooms and labs, the College has yet to experience a large outbreak of COVID-19 on campus, he said.

“We understand it is difficult, and we regret that. However, it is premature to lift limitations on group size,” Babcock said.

Students are also confused as to why some of the elements within the “Orange” Alert Level have been altered and changed. The current state of what is “Yellow” or “Green” isn’t clear, but once decisions are being made about changing the level, then that information will be given to the students, Bertoni said.

It is important to keep in mind that the level guides on the St. Mike’s website are not set in stone rules. The restrictions within these levels are being updated and modified because of the frequent changing status of COVID on campus and around the community. Indoor dining, for example, opened up after two weeks of test results showed a low prevalence of COVID on campus and because of the safety protocols Sodexo has placed.

“If we transition to a less restrictive level, we still have to adhere to state guidelines, which are also subject to change,” said Kristin McAndrew, vice president for Enrollment and Marketing, and member of the EPG.

There is a rumor on campus that the current alert level will change to “Yellow” sooner than later. Members of the EPG can neither confirm nor deny if that decision will be made soon.

“Sadly, there are no guarantees when it comes to a pandemic, but adhering to COVID guidelines is the best thing students can do,” McAndrew said.