I had two COVID scares lately. And by lately, I mean within the past 4 days.
When it comes to COVID, I’d like to think I’ve always been careful. If not always, then at least mostly. Sure, ever since the University made masking optional last spring and asymptomatic testing later this fall, I haven’t been as strict with protective measures—I will admit I go out to the Street more than I had expected when I first arrived at Princeton. Still, I’ve been fairly careful. You’d spot hand sanitizer in both my bedroom and the common room of our quad, and I make sure to carry one at all times—every backpack and purse I own is stocked with its own travel-size plastic bottle along with a mask or two. I still have packs of KN95s in my drawers, which came in handy when a friend tested positive just this morning. My roommate and I regularly spray the room with Lysol, and we wiped down the space with Clorox when we first arrived back on campus in August. As I write this, I am sitting in a study room in the basement of Joline Hall, alone and masked nonetheless.
And yet, I’m a close contact.
One of my friends tested positive on Saturday. I got a frantic text in the group chat and bolted out of the room in search of rapid tests. The nurse had told her that UHS was not testing people unless they arrive with symptoms. I remembered seeing test kits in the Rocky common room, but by the time I stumbled past the prox-guarded wooden door, the giant plastic storage bin was already empty. My heart dropped, cold as the cobblestone walls of Madison Hall.
I ran to CVS with nothing but my phone and a mask. I probably scared a few customers in the CVS when I practically begged the employee for rapid tests. “The fastest one.” In my panic, I forgot to use my UHS insurance, or my CVS extra care card. I only registered the cost when my phone beeped in my hand to remind me of the numbers; I didn’t have time to be grateful that I could afford two boxes of two-pack tests—for myself and my three other friends who have been in close contact—or to even realize it was, to many, not a small sum.
When I got the news this morning I rushed to the Rocky Common Room again. I got lucky. The bin was full. I stocked up on tests for the whole room and a couple mutual friends. Most of us have only been in close proximity with this friend briefly within the last 48 hours, but I encouraged everyone to test anyway. I stopped by Frist after class and picked up antigen tests, too, nodding along as the ladies at the table reminded me puzzledly that they expire in a month; they probably assumed I was stockpiling them as if they were toilet paper in March, 2020.
Another friend tested positive later this afternoon.
Fortunately I have been spared so far. My roommate too. But as I sit in the basement I feel as though it’s only a matter of time before it gets me again. My friends seem to be dropping like flies. The size of my philosophy class reduced by half. Glee had its first rehearsal of the year on Monday and there have already been COVID-related absences. Without mandatory indoor masking policies, we’re all breathing in each other’s germs in lecture halls packed to capacity again. And without mandatory asymptomatic testing, how would I know if I am actually positive? I could have given my friends COVID without knowing. I could be passing on the virus in this very moment. Sure, I have been trying to be careful, but so what? Most people that I know on campus seem nonchalant enough to join the mosh pit in eating club basements and at Lawnparties, the same people that could be sitting next to me in the dining hall or during lectures. Now that the University is not monitoring the pandemic as closely through testing, COVID is a silent landmine, invisible and creeping. No matter how lightly I tread, its threat looms just beyond the visible realm. It remains.
My friends received no emails about isolation instructions, no information about dining. The first one to test positive texted me for help, and I could only tell her what I knew, expired policies from last April.
I have friends who are immunocompromised. I have friends who have vulnerable family members. I have friends who have major commitments coming up they cannot miss. The first Glee concert of the year is 10 days away, and our guest ensemble includes a pregnant woman. My own birthday is in less than two weeks, and I’m sitting here worried if I am going to make my own celebration.
Most of the COVID scares I’ve had have been from this semester.
Are we really living on a post-COVID campus?
As trite as it may seem, I cannot help but wonder, will we ever truly be post-COVID? Everyone wants to say that we already are. Everyone wants to believe that we can be. But watching as my group chats explode with news of acquaintances testing positive, as my classes shrink in size, as professors apologetically email about COVID-related absences, I question if we are doing something wrong. Personally, I still hesitate to give up this greater freedom afforded by looser COVID policy, but is it worth the gnawing fear of infection every time I step out of my room to enjoy the small joys of company and being able to see the lower half of people’s faces again if we have no testing policies as a safeguard?
I do not know Princeton before the pandemic, and I no longer remember the world before it.
Header design by Pia Capili.