Graphic by Iliana Garner / North by Northwestern

When Weinberg second-year Gabi Camacho tested positive for COVID-19 in late September, she was surprised to learn that Northwestern didn’t provide quarantine housing for students. Fortunately, her roommate found somewhere to stay in a friend’s dorm and Camacho was able to quarantine alone for five days until testing negative.

For Camacho, who otherwise would have risked spreading the virus, the experience exposes a flaw in the University’s COVID-19 policy.

“I think there should be some other option besides forcing roommates to stay together,” she said.

This fall, the U.S. saw 2023’s first rise in COVID-19 hospitalizations. While hospitalizations peaked in early September, college campuses are still reeling from the surge.

Some Northwestern community members are still experiencing waves of the virus among their circles, yet the University does little to offer guidance. Northwestern no longer updates its COVID tracking data, requires masking in public areas or mandates the vaccine for undergraduate students. Beyond that, Northwestern’s official directive for students who test positive is to simply “isolate according to CDC guidelines.”

Callum Stefanelli, Weinberg third-year and Allison Hall resident assistant, tested positive in late September. He said there is no mechanism for enforcing these guidelines or keeping track of infected students.

“During Wildcat Welcome, I do think [COVID] was going around a bit more than people realized,” Stefanelli said.

Without any means of holding students accountable to positive tests, no official record of how many active cases there are on campus and no health mandates, the NU campus positions itself as a place where the virus can thrive. This puts students, staff and faculty at risk – especially those who are immunocompromised.

Professor of Medicine and Biomedical Engineering at Feinberg Dr. Robert Murphy said there is a pattern of COVID surges every fall. Murphy suggested this may be because schools are back in session and people are increasingly together indoors more often in colder weather, but he added that experts are still not sure why this occurs.  

One of the reasons COVID continues to spread on NU campus and in the U.S. at large is poor public messaging, Murphy said. He added that in Illinois, residents can receive different types of advice from three public health systems: Cook County, the state of Illinois and the City of Chicago. He said this decentralized means of communication – as opposed to one national source of health communication – makes it confusing.

“I blame the system. We really have a horrible public health system in the United States,” Murphy said.

This combined with people’s desire to move on, Murphy said, makes it easy to pretend COVID no longer poses a threat to public health.

“Now that COVID is off the radar screen, people think it's over,” Murphy said. “It is not over. It's anything but over. COVID is here. We have to learn how to live with it.”

Despite the popular sentiment of moving on from COVID fears, many on campus remain critical of the University’s response.

Medill Professor Steven Thrasher expressed concern for the University’s lack of protective action toward immunocompromised students. AccessibleNU, Northwestern’s organization centered on aiding students with disabilities, offers immunocompromised learning assistance on a case by case basis. However, some note its history of dismissiveness when dealing with students.

“The role of immunocompromised students has been pushed to the side,” Thrasher said.

Sixth-year Art History Ph.D. candidate Emma Kennedy described the contrast between Northwestern’s extensive involvement in COVID research and their lack of protocol to react to it as a “cruel irony.”

Kennedy is a member of the Northwestern University Graduate Workers union where a group of rank-and-file members petitioned with community members for the University to increase their COVID safety protocol in the spring. The petitioners were informed that masks and tests would be available at the health center, but nothing more came of it.

“I think the University has a lot of responsibility,” Kennedy said. “I think they are an institution with billions of dollars and can easily supply masks to everyone on campus.”

Thrasher echoed Kennedy’s sentiment. He said that as a leading scientific institution, Northwestern has a unique obligation to model responsible COVID management, a responsibility he feels the University is shirking with its current policies – or lack thereof.

Thrasher, who has written extensively about public health and disease, also said he believes it’s entirely possible for the University to adopt COVID policies which were previously scaled back – such as an indoor mask mandate.

Even if the University were concerned with the financial burden of reinstating COVID policies like isolation housing and required testing, Kennedy said there could still be free efforts to keep people safe. She said, for example, the University could send out regular advice on how to isolate, where to get tested and where to get vaccinated.

“Given that the University has seemingly abdicated responsibility, I think a really important thing for individuals to do is protect themselves: get vaccinated, wear a mask as much as you can and stay home if you’re sick,” Kennedy said.

The lack of requirements, accountability methods and COVID protocols place the responsibility of keeping the Northwestern community in the hands of students, staff and faculty, rather than the administration.

“It's all on the individual, and I think something we need to do is resist thinking individually,” Kennedy said. “Protecting yourself protects other people. We live with other people and have a responsibility to them.”