PITTSFIELD — With vaccines soon available to everyone in the state, and COVID-19 restrictions relaxed both in the state and nationwide, it’s easy to assume that the pandemic is just about over.
Not so fast.
Williams College and my alma mater, the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, recently learned that the hard way. Williams sent more than 100 students home due to an unsafe indoor party, and MCLA has locked down its Flagg Townhouse residence area after a cluster of COVID cases was discovered there, largely attributed to small gatherings. COVID is still alive and well, and will continue to be relevant until we can get a vast majority of people vaccinated.
Our local colleges are far from the only places where people have ignored public health measures, with the influx of maskless spring breakers in Miami that prompted a rare curfew in the city — heavily influenced by Gov. Ron DeSantis’ premature end to mask mandates in Florida — being a particularly prominent example. Statewide, cases have been up, and in Pittsfield, more than twice as many households are in quarantine than there were two months ago, while according to Berkshire Health Systems, hospitalizations jumped from one inpatient three weeks ago to 12 as of Friday.
I get it. COVID-19 has been here for more than a year, the end of the pandemic is in sight as vaccines become more readily available and it’s nice outside. It might seem incredibly attractive to risk it and see your friends, especially if you are young. According to Gov. Charlie Baker, the latest wave of COVID cases has been driven by “people under the age of 30”, which is a group that’s not yet eligible for vaccines, and who are generally considered less at risk of succumbing to serious illness from COVID, but they are not invincible. And it’s easy to see April 19 — the date every Bay State adult will be eligible to get a vaccine — as almost here, and equate that to the end of the pandemic, ignoring the fact that not everyone will be able to immediately get an appointment on day one, and that two-thirds of the vaccines we currently have require two shots weeks apart.
Humans are social creatures, and that’s especially true of young people, and I think it’s more than just correlation that both MCLA’s cluster and Williams’ party came during a semester where both colleges canceled spring break. Looking back, it was very wise of MCLA to go fully remote after Spring break in 2020, and after Thanksgiving break last fall, as it allowed them to sidestep periods of time in which COVID was on the rise, and it was foolish to not implement a similar strategy this semester. I can’t speak for Williams, but college students in general, when brought together on campus for an extended period of time, will eventually feel the need to gather in order to experience some version of the traditional college experience that COVID has taken from them.
And I can’t exactly blame them. If I was going to college during COVID, I’d be tempted to do the exact same thing, especially if I had a small friend group I thought was safe to be around. MCLA’s cluster and Williams’ party highlight a key fatal flaw of in-person and hybrid plans for instruction at schools: If young people don’t follow the rules, they fall apart.
This is not to shame young people — plenty of adults of all ages have refused to follow the rules throughout this entire pandemic, and making mistakes is a key part of growing up. But, especially as more contagious variants of the virus circulate, those mistakes can carry grave consequences, and they must be mitigated as much as possible.
Vaccines offer great hope of ending the pandemic, but if we declare victory prematurely and ignore public health measures like mask-wearing and social distancing — or even flat out refuse to take the vaccines — it will only prolong the relevance of the disease and all the human suffering associated with it. In a race, you wouldn’t pack up your bags and go home when you’re almost at the finish line. Why would you let your guard down when we’re less than a month away from everyone being eligible for a vaccine?