By Ciara Morton and Weiyi Dai
Since March 2020, COVID-19 has been taking a toll on people socially, physically, emotionally and economically, completely transforming the standards surrounding everyday tasks.
To ensure safety on the UIC campus, students are required to provide proof of their vaccination cards and receive regular saliva testing. The use of masks has limited the need for social distancing, but university officials still encourage both.
“All in all, I see this as something that has given us freedom,” said Dr. Jeffrey Gore, a UIC English professor, when asked about the university’s mask mandate.
Gore cited a family member’s recent heart transplant and the age of his parents, both in their 70s, as the primary reasons for his cautious approach to the virus. COVID-19 is particularly deadly for people with weakened immune systems, including transplant patients, who take immunosuppressive medication that prevents organ rejection; and the elderly, whose immune systems gradually deteriorate with age.
Gore said he felt safe while returning to in-person teaching, commending the university for “recognizing the need to adapt and accommodate” as the number of coronavirus cases continues to fluctuate on and off-campus.
Video: How the UIC mask policy and testing work
On Feb. 28, the Illinois state mask mandate was updated: masks were no longer required in most indoor settings, K-12 schools, and daycares. The change occurred two months into a tumultuous start to the spring 2022 semester that left many students skeptical about returning to campus for in-person classes. As UIC closes out the school year, students, faculty and staff wonder what the future of mask mandates and social distancing will look like amid shifting policies worldwide.
The UIC COVID-19 Contact Tracing and Epidemiology Program “has played a key role in keeping the campus safe,” according to Dr. Ron Hershow, the director of the Division of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the UIC School of Public Health. He works with three supervisors and 18 contact tracers to monitor positive cases on campus, vaccination rates, saliva testing results, and on-campus housing infection data.
University officials say they are hoping to see fewer outbreaks as vaccination rates continue to rise, which would suggest the university is a safer environment for all students and faculties.
Despite the extensive effort being put into tracing coronavirus across the campus, it’s been difficult to keep the number of positive cases low for longer than a few weeks at a time.
According to the UIC COVID-19 tracking dashboard developed by the program, the week of Feb. 27 saw 29 new cases in its lowest week of positive cases for the entire semester. By April 3, approximately one month following the statewide mask mandate change and one week after spring break ended, the number of new cases was 100.
This uptick in cases coincides with past incidences of positive cases rising following summer, spring and winter breaks. It also coincides with increases in positivity rates for Chicago and for the state.
Some epidemiologists hypothesize that a new attitude toward the mask mandate, one that sees a greater acceptance of the mask mandate and for wearing PPE, could promote a more stable decline in positive cases nationwide.
“Maybe we were wrong in the pre-COVID era not to mask up in the winter,” Hershow said, adding that the United States’ mask opposition as a reason for why the nation has had an inconsistent path to normalcy.
As of April 14, the campus-wide vaccination rate is 95%. Students are committed to keeping themselves and their families safe as much as the faculty and staff at UIC. Most students get vaccinated because they believe it can help lower the COVID-19 infection rate on campus. That proactivity could be extended to masking, with some students finding safety in wearing a mask on campus.
“Masks enhance my ability to learn and collaborate because they help me to feel extra safe within my classes,” said Tegan Amato, who transferred into UIC’s English program this semester, “especially since we are not always able to practice social distancing in the smaller classrooms.”
Amato credited the high vaccination rates and the university’s mask mandate to her positive transfer experience to the university.
At the moment, the virus is still behaving in a way that prevents members of the UIC COVID-19 Contact Tracing and Epidemiology Program from pinpointing a definitive time on when the university’s mask mandate could be lifted.
“We’re not sure how this epidemic is going to go in the next few weeks to months to years even,” Hershow said.
“Not everyone is in lockstep with that return to normalcy plan… we have to be willing to take those voices into account,” Hershow said when responding to a question regarding the insecurities of immunocompromised members of the UIC community.
Doctors say the key to moving forward as a community lies not in a forced urgency to return to normalcy but in the community’s willingness to accommodate the needs and concerns of individuals who would be vulnerable with a mask mandate lift.
“The key to success is being able to be flexible,” Gore said.
Natalia Lopez-Yanez, the current Director of the UIC Contact Tracing and Epidemiology Program, said, “It really is a team effort to be able to get through this and continue our campus activities safely.”
Tracking COVID-19 at UIC
You can use the University of Illinois Chicago COVID-19 Tracking Dashboard to remain updated on coronavirus numbers for faculty and students.