All University of New Hampshire (UNH) students, faculty and staff are now required to wear masks in most indoor spaces on campus, President James Dean announced Thursday.
The decision comes following an uptick in positive coronavirus (COVID-19) cases on campus, “among those who are not fully vaccinated and to some degree among those who are,” according to Dean. He wrote that these additional measures aim to keep the community safe and campus open.
This directive applies to both vaccinated and unvaccinated members of the community. Prior to this, masks were “strongly encouraged” in many buildings throughout campus, but only required in classrooms, congested areas, elevators when riding with other people and labs/offices where people interact closely for more than a few minutes, per Dean’s Aug. 6 announcement.
“Managing COVID-19 and not letting COVID-19 manage us is a sound preventative theory. Putting these limited restrictions in place now will curb the spread and put our community in a better position as colder weather sets in and more time is spent indoors,” wrote UNH Chief of Police and Associate VP for Public Safety and Risk Management Paul Dean in a statement to The New Hampshire.
Exceptions to this new mandate include when eating, in private offices or personal residence hall rooms. Spaces where masks are required include “classrooms, hallways, elevators, restrooms, break rooms, entries and exits to buildings, laboratories, meeting rooms, shared offices and work areas.”
All campus buildings will receive an increase in air ventilation, dining halls will implement more plexiglass barriers and non-UNH visitors are no longer allowed in residence halls.
The news comes about a week after Senior Vice Provost for Student Life Kenneth Holmes sent an email urging students to wear masks in the appropriate situations. “I’m writing because I need your help. As I’ve been walking around campus, I’ve noticed that a lot of people haven’t been wearing masks in public spaces, even when those spaces are crowded like the MUB or the dining halls,” wrote Holmes, referencing last year’s Labor Day spike.
Stoke Hall, the largest residence hall on campus housing mostly first-year and sophomore students, has been placed under increased restrictions due to its higher positive case rate. These measures will be in place until cases there begin to decrease. Effectively immediately, all Stoke residents must test twice per week for the next two weeks, according to an email from Stoke Residence Hall Director Christine Roundtree. Only one guest per resident at most is allowed at a time, and there will be new enhanced cleaning, ventilation and capacity measures.
Currently, there are 139 active COVID-19 cases at UNH, with a positivity rate of 1.07%, according to the UNH dashboard. In his Thursday email, Chief Dean noted that the majority of positive COVID-19 cases have “relatively minor symptoms.”
UNH Health & Wellness Medical Director Dr. Peter Degnan noted in a Thursday email with The New Hampshire that “while the total number of new infections are somewhat similar for both vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals, our student population is predominantly vaccinated (perhaps higher than 80%). This suggests that the likelihood of developing COVID infection at UNH is significantly higher for unvaccinated than vaccinated individuals.”
Degnan said that the increasing prevalence of the Delta variant has led to an increase in COVID-19 at UNH and in surrounding communities. He added that while unvaccinated individuals are at the greatest risk, they are also seeing breakthrough infections in those who are fully vaccinated against the virus.
As of Dean’s last update on Aug. 31, students lead the way in terms of vaccinations, with 88% of students providing full proof of vaccination, and only 77% of faculty and 70% of staff having done so.
In addition to more mask-wearing, students will now continue testing “through the fall semester,” according to a Thursday night email from Chief Dean. Faculty, staff and students must pick up more test kits at the Whittemore Center Arena this week, Sept. 13 – 17. Test kits will also be available in MUB 213 after this week. Stoke Hall residents should not come to the Whittemore Center, as testing kits will be delivered there on Monday.
Testing will follow the same schedule as September, with those who have submitted proof of full vaccination testing every other week, and those who have not testing twice per week.
Degnan outlined some of the health benefits of these updated mask-wearing policies. “It was hoped that the virus activity would remain low enough that mask use guidelines could be limited,” he said. “Because indoor viral exposures carry a much higher risk for infectiousness especially in group settings, and because mask use is clearly associated with a reduction of infectious risk to others, a change in mask policy is a prudent response to help stem the spread of infection.”
So, how can students help stop the spread? “In the experience of our Health & Wellness contact tracing team, indoor group gatherings with friends without mask use or physical distancing is identified as the greatest risk factor for becoming infected with COVID illness,” Degnan said. He encouraged students to keep their interactions outdoors as much as possible, and to wear masks and distance in the case of indoor activities.
“We’re all in this together, and your actions will help to ensure that we provide the best on-campus experience possible for everyone,” President Dean wrote.
Photo courtesy of the University of New Hampshire.