OPINION: Forcing unvaccinated students to Oasis endangers public health

(HuxleyAnn Huefner • The Student Life)

The Pomona College administration is skirting basic public health guidance by forcing students with exemptions to the COVID-19 vaccine(s) to move to the Oasis apartments. Dean of Students Avis Hinkson’s update on Jan. 24 contained the first brief mention of the policy, stating that “students with exemptions will have their rooms changed as students who are not up to date on their vaccines are housed together.” This statement revealed the Pomona administration’s stance that the virus spreads less easily if all unvaccinated students are housed together.

For many, medical exemptions to the COVID-19 vaccine are not intuitive. In the midst of ideological misinformation that discourages receiving a vaccine, it’s easy to dismiss the decision not to get one. In reality, however, legitimate medical exemptions do exist. I learned this the hard way.

On April 14, 2021, I received my second dose of the Pfizer vaccine. Two days later, I woke up to unbearable chest pain which quickly spread over to my left arm. Since I had a decent idea of where my heart was located, and this pain seemed to be coming from that location, I immediately drove myself to the nearest emergency room. There, a fairly perplexed assortment of medical personnel ruled out a heart attack and cocaine usage and instead diagnosed me with myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle. I spent four days in the hospital, where a mix of cardiologists confirmed that this was an extremely rare form of myocarditis directly induced by the COVID-19 vaccine. Out of every medical study, meta-analysis, and news report the doctors and my family could scour, we found a single case of COVID-19 vaccine-induced myocarditis from a 19-year-old in Israel. I was, presumably, the first known case in the U.S.

As soon as Pomona announced its decision to mandate booster shots, I sent an email to Hinkson along with a letter from my cardiologist, explaining my situation and asking her for any information about what my semester might look like. I sent my email on Jan. 3, but I didn’t get a direct response from Hinkson until Feb. 1, when she responded that unvaccinated students were being moved to Oasis due to “shared bathrooms, common spaces, etc.” I asked for a personal meeting with Hinkson, where she scheduled a Zoom call to explain that the decision was motivated by the risk of exposure in shared bathrooms. When I mentioned how this might affect my relationships and residential experience at Pomona, she responded that the college didn’t see it as a punishment — just a switch in housing.

In my meeting with Hinkson, I listed a long list of concerns I had with the policy—the vast majority of which went unresponded to. First, the Oasis apartments have a higher risk of exposure than Wig Hall, my current housing, as well as every other Pomona dormitory due to a larger number of common spaces, more residents, and their vaccination statuses  They have a common BBQ area, pool area, fitness center, study spaces and an indoor lobby that occasionally holds indoor events and gatherings. One of the main ways to reach the apartments is also via a shuttle that requires residents to enter close quarters. These common spaces are widely used by 419 residents of the Oasis apartments, whereas Wig Hall has only 113. To make things worse, a receptionist informed me that residents frequently do not wear masks in hallways. 

This policy functions more as a cognitive reprieve than as a rational public health protocol; in fact, it directly contradicts Los Angeles County’s public health guidance from Jan. 7, which explicitly notes: “It is safer to place individual unvaccinated students with roommates or suitemates who are fully vaccinated, rather than to cohort unvaccinated students together. Surrounding unvaccinated persons with vaccinated individuals provides some degree of additional protection for the unvaccinated.”

As an alternative to the Oasis apartments, I offered a policy that would require me to get tested five days a week and house me in an on-campus single located near a single-use bathroom. The same cleaning procedures that mitigate risk in all our shared bathrooms would minimize exposure, and there would be no risk of being in a bathroom unmasked with other vaccinated students. It hardly seemed like the risk of exposure in a shared, single-use bathroom should outweigh the risks of unvaccinated residents sharing common spaces, hallways, and a shuttle. Unvaccinated students are at a far higher risk of severe infection, and bundling them together clearly ignores their health. Nonetheless, the administration appeared dead-set on housing unvaccinated students in the same building.

Perhaps of least concern to the administration was how this would affect my residential experience. Residential life as a first-year was marketed as one of the top reasons to go to Pomona. On its website, the college takes “pride in being a residential college where the line between living and learning is practically non-existent.” This policy had no room to consider how I might have to move out mid-semester and leave my sponsor group, residential connections, and most peers in my class year.

More than a week after my meeting with Hinkson, I received a bizarre email: I was being assigned a roommate. Frank Bedoya, Pomona’s director of housing and operations, sent an email to my new roommate before informing me of the situation. The email noted that I was “vaccinated so there should be no concern.” Not only is this blatantly misleading information about my medical situation, but it reflects the Pomona administration’s refusal to consistently explain their COVID policies. If there was genuinely no concern, then I’d still be living in Wig, with 300 fewer residents and the protection of herd immunity from my vaccinated peers. Luckily, an effort of emails and a phone call with Hinkson convinced administrators to allow me a single apartment in Oasis, but they refused to allow me to remain in on-campus housing.

Public health vaccination strategy entails more than just encouraging vaccinations—it also means protecting the populations who are medically ineligible for them. These students rely on the protection of being surrounded by vaccinated individuals. Rather than seeking protective solutions for populations ineligible for vaccination, Pomona’s administration is arbitrarily punishing them. As long as Pomona continues to concentrate students ineligible for vaccination at the Oasis apartments, it is jeopardizing the health of our community and succumbing to heuristics before compassion. Meanwhile, cross-campus dining and 5C parties are apparently considered a risk worth taking.

Guest columnist Gabe Schuhl PO ’25 is from Charlotte, North Carolina. He spends a lot of time spinning the cups from Frary Dining Hall. 

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