Like many other students, I spent a considerable portion of my first week back on campus trying to fit into crowded, University of Georgia, buses. Being surrounded by a tightly packed cluster of other students is a discomfort I am sure many have felt, but as mask requirements drop around campus, I am concerned about what danger this may pose.
Despite a voice over the loudspeaker repeatedly stating, “All passengers must wear a mask on the bus,” many students choose to remain maskless. Given the obvious risks associated with a crowd in a small and enclosed space, this choice will have pervasive consequences.
Covid cases are growing in Georgia, largely due to the Omicron variant, which constitutes 95% of the United State’s daily cases and remains two to four times more contagious than previous variants. Unfortunately, it also is more resistant to antibodies produced by vaccines, which increases the number of breakthrough cases and the need for a booster shot.
As of January 12th, only 48% of Athens-Clarke County residents are fully vaccinated, and the weekly case rate total per 100,00 residents continues to rise, currently at 1,488. New weekly hospital admissions due to Covid are at 166, more than three times the 44 admissions reported two weeks prior.
Furthermore, the University Health Center reports that only 4,836 individuals have received the booster shot, which is worrisome since only two doses of the Covid vaccines are unlikely to protect against infection by Omicron.
As is the case all over the U.S., there is a large group of people who have not and do not plan on receiving the vaccine. While this trend continues, it is essential for all students, regardless of vaccination status, to continue to wear masks to protect themselves and others who may be immunocompromised.
The University of Georgia has largely abandoned mask requirements on campus, opting instead to “strongly encourage students to wear masks indoors.” One of the only mask requirements on campus is for the bus system.
As the pandemic continues to divide Americans, it is understandable that UGA administration is hesitant to make sweeping regulations. However, the safety of students and faculty should come before worries about backlash.
Elise Meade and Alexis Sotilleo, both sophomore biology majors, say they have noticed increased crowding on buses.
Meade says when the bus is at full capacity and “everyone is squished together” she sees as many as “ten to twenty people” not wearing their masks. Sotilleo adds that even when driving by, it is easy to see how crowded the buses are.
Meade says that she felt very uncomfortable at the beginning of the semester with the perceived lack of care given to masks but “now I’ve just gotten used to it, which is sad,” she said.
Sotilleo mentions that when people do not wear masks, she is worried for her “teachers’ safety and other students’ safety,” feeling that not wearing a mask is “jeopardizing everybody.”
Both made sure to clarify that they do not feel anger towards students who do not wear a mask.
Although I’m not angry either, I do understand that feelings of exhaustion and frustration are mounting as the pandemic nears its two-year anniversary.
Many students feel as though they have done everything they can to protect themselves and at this point, view wearing a mask as inconsequential. However, this attitude will only contribute to the virus’s spread and worsen feelings of burnout as the pandemic drags on.
I presume that the lack of masks is primarily because many students are healthy, young individuals who likely will not face hospitalization or death. However, I ask that we remember that there are individuals who are not as privileged, either physically or situationally.
Many individuals cannot afford to miss a paycheck due to isolation measures. Similarly many immunocompromised individuals, such as UGA’s elderly population (both students and faculty) cannot afford to risk infection.
Wearing a mask does not constitute an entire reversal of life as we know it. It is a small act with large, positive repercussions. Given the mass of students engaging with the bus system, one of the best ways to protect the aforementioned more vulnerable persons is to adhere to safety guidelines, such as mask requirements. While I would prefer UGA to act more aggressively to combat these dangers, it seems as if most precautions are being abandoned. By adhering to the few requirements in place, students can help do their part to slow the spread of the virus and protect those around them.