OPINION: Pomona’s quarantine policies leave room for error

Pomona’s isolation policies are contradictory, inconsistent, and put students’ health at risk.
(Austin Zang • The Student Life)

As we approach the COVID-19 pandemic’s three-year anniversary next week, my message to Pomona College is clear: it’s about time we do better. 

Three weeks ago, a friend of mine, and fellow Pomona student, found out she had been in close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19. She took a PCR test and a rapid test. After 15 minutes, she checked the rapid test. 

It looked ambiguous. But she thought she could make out the faint red line, indicating that she had tested positive for COVID-19. Conscientious, she emailed Student Health Services, who told her to pack her bags and move into quarantine at the Oldenborg Center. Later that day, her PCR test came back negative.

But it was too late. Despite multiple negative rapid tests over the course of the following week, she was forced to stay in Oldenborg to quarantine for six days.

In theory, it could seem as though Pomona was just being cautious in the interest of safeguarding student health. But in practice, my friend’s experience reveals Pomona’s quarantine policies to be contradictory, inconsistent and put students’ health at risk. How so?

First, the decision to quarantine a student in Oldenborg based on the results of a rapid test should have never happened. An order to quarantine should be contingent on the results of a PCR test to ensure accuracy and follow campus standards. 

While navigating the pandemic during the last two years on campus, it has been made beyond clear that a rapid test has never been sufficient to satisfy the previous weekly testing policy or post-break testing requirements. If rapid test results have never been sufficient to demonstrate one’s ability to safely stay out of quarantine, it’s completely contradictory to require somebody to enter quarantine based on the results of a rapid test. 

Pomona’s COVID-19 policy team is picking and choosing when rapid tests matter — and when they don’t. The rapid tests that my friend took while she was in quarantine did not sway Pomona’s decision to keep her in quarantine. If the results of a rapid test required her to enter quarantine, why did the results of a rapid test not allow her to exit quarantine?

Either by reworking the policies themselves or by ensuring that those who make decisions about quarantine are adequately informed, Pomona must improve its quarantine policies. This is evident given the ways in which students’ mental and physical health are threatened under the current policy.

Quarantine is necessary to protect the community. But it has a history of being a stressful circumstance with negative mental health impacts. Ideally, efforts should be made to alleviate this stress as much as possible. As stated in a 2020 article in “Affective Science,” one way to do so is to “ensure that individuals are monitored by competent professionals, thus reducing the psychological damage that can be motivated by the social isolation period during the quarantine.”

That couldn’t be further from what my friend experienced. When she asked for her isolation to be reconsidered given her negative PCR test, vague and non-specific email responses from Student Health Services made her feel trapped and powerless. Moving forward, Pomona must ensure better monitoring and communication between people in quarantine and the individuals managing their cases.

Current quarantine policies can also threaten physical health. Being in quarantine meant that my friend had to share a bathroom and shower with people who were COVID-19-positive, despite the fact that she didn’t have COVID-19. 

By doing this, Pomona recklessly put her and potentially other students like her in danger of actually contracting COVID-19. Considering the potential short and long-term impacts of COVID-19, which, according to the Mayo Clinic, include but are not limited to neurological symptoms, loss of smell or taste, heart symptoms or conditions and blood clots, how much is student health actually a priority in Pomona’s COVID-19 policies?

On Jan. 28, 2022, TSL reported that “Pomona students in isolation [say] experience has often left them feeling isolated in more ways than one.” Today — 13 months later — I can’t say that’s changed. 

Pomona must create an environment in which people feel encouraged to test when they feel sick, rather than one where students avoid testing because they are scared of being placed into an unhealthy and unresponsive isolation environment. Improving students’ quarantine experiences isn’t just crucial to the health of those in isolation — it’s important for the entire community.

Maggie McBride PO ’23 is a senior majoring in psychological science. She would like to thank the creator of 5C Friend.

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