The First Step to Normality: Accepting and Co-Existing with COVID-19

Fedora Liu, Staff Writer

Ever since Loomis Chaffee re-opened campus to students in September of 2020 following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the school had been enforcing intensive, mandatory testing procedures to comb through the community for positive cases on a regular basis. However, on January 9, just a few days after students returned from Winter Break, Head of School Dr. Sheila Culbert announced in an email to the community that Loomis would no longer mandate such all-school testing protocols.
The announcement led to mixed sentiments from the school community. Regardless, the new policy has stayed in place for a number of reasons.
Before the suspension of community-wide testing, Loomis Chaffee had been testing by collecting everyone’s spit in tubes. The tubes were then sent to Mirimus Lab, who sorted through the samples for any presence of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus behind COVID-19) through a process called pooled testing and notified the school of any positive cases.
However, during the week that students returned to campus, Mirimus Lab had had an unusually overwhelming number of tests to go through.
“Testing only works, surveillance testing, when you’re really looking at the whole community. It really only works if you have a quick turnaround,” said Dr. Culbert. When Loomis Chaffee first began pool-testing the community, the results would be received within 24 hours. “The last round of testing [before suspension] took five days, by which time, I think everybody had this sort of false sense that ‘Oh, everything’s okay, they haven’t told me otherwise’. And so that really did not work.”
“But it also made us stop and think, “alright, we know this virus spreads more quickly…what’s another way that we can do this [so] we can get faster results? We (currently) do have an antigen test in the health center,” said COVID-19 Coordinator Mary Liscinsky. “We’re looking into getting a rapid PCR machine, so we have even more tools available to do quick testing.”
Both Ms. Liscinsky and Dr. Culbert emphasized that although the school was no longer testing each and every person, COVID-19 testing for individuals has not been suspended. Loomis is currently still providing tests for any student who feels symptomatic or is worried they have been exposed to the virus in the Health Center.
“We have enough tests for all students who need them!” Dr. Culbert said.
Additionally, Dr. Culbert explained that the big delay in results from Mirimus Lab was only the situation during that first week back from break during which students were returning. The circumstances have changed. If the school continued the community-wide pooled testing now, the delay would no longer be so drastic.
“I think that [Mirimus has] improved,” she says. “We just don’t think it’s necessary to do [community-wide testing] right this minute.” The acceptance of the new COVID-variant Omicron’s low severity, especially to young people, has contributed to this decision. The belief is that a spread of the new variant Omicron throughout the community will not pose a high-risk compared to previous variants.
The school has already been actively working against a spread anyways with measures such as the masking requirement, setting up booster clinics on campus, and implementing a thorough contact-tracing system.
However, there is one assumption from Dr. Culbert’s email explaining the new testing policy that the school has yet to extensively explain: “COVID-19 is now most likely endemic”.
What does that mean? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines “endemic” as a “constant presence and/or usual prevalence of a disease or infectious agent in a population within a geographic area”. While labeling a virus as endemic does not mean there will be no more infections, it also doesn’t mean that regular, widespread outbreaks of the virus will continue. Vulnerability and immunity towards the virus will have reached a stable point. “Endemic” defines a virus whose infections no longer pose a disruptive threat to society, and see a long-term decline in deaths.
More and more of the nation’s leading scientists and epidemiologists, like the infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci and director of CDC Dr. Rochelle Walensky, are beginning to reject an unrealistic future of eradicating SARS-CoV-2. Meanwhile, they declare a probable, endemic future for the virus. Dr. Culbert holds similar sentiments.
“We’re in this transition from being a pandemic to being endemic,” says Dr. Culbert. “And that’s going to require us all to take some different approaches. I’m reluctant to remain in lockdown. I don’t think that’s good for the health of our student body or for the adults on campus. We have to figure out, “How do we live with this?”
Loomis does not regularly test each member for positive flu cases; the school has already accepted the presence of the influenza virus in our society. If COVID-19 is to be considered endemic by the school, then, the fact that a few infections will be present amongst our school community will also become a normalized assumption. Thus, the school would sooner or later have to suspend regular community-wide testing.
“We’ll want everybody to test when they come back from Heads (Holiday),” said Ms. Liscinsky. “And it may be that we pivot again.”
Dr. Culbert explained that Loomis has not only been talking with their own medical experts, but also reaching out to peer schools to discuss COVID-19 management.
“In capacities, the COVID-coordinators of all of our peer schools meet pretty regularly, the heads of our schools meet regularly,” says Dr. Culbert.
With all this being said, the state of COVID-19 has always been fluid. What are facts today may be misconceptions tomorrow. When asked if all-school testing would ever be regularly enforced again, both Ms. Liscinsky and Dr. Culbert could not give me a firm answer.
“I never say never. But I think it’s going to depend on circumstances and where we are,” Dr. Culbert says. “It’s a balancing act: how do we do this best? And, I think the numbers are telling me that we’re in very good shape.”