Since mid 2020, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has worked to implement initiatives meant to return Florida to normal as much as possible in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Even at times when these initiatives conflicted with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) guidelines or cropped up amidst Florida’s own rising positive cases, DeSantis has led the state through the phases of reopening, the suspension of COVID-19 emergency orders and the elimination of mask mandates in schools. Now, with Surgeon General Dr. Joseph Ladapo, the Florida Department of Health (FDH) has issued new state guidelines that break away from CDC recommendations by further reducing isolation periods and by removing mask mandates from corporate environments. The new guidelines mean that New College—on top of reducing isolation periods—will also no longer be participating in high-risk contact tracing.
In a Florida Department of Education (DOE) press release issued on Feb. 24, DeSantis and Ladapo announced that “Florida is breaking from outdated CDC guidance and allowing students to avoid unnecessarily missing school for extended periods of time.” These new state guidelines include “pushing back on unscientific corporate masking” and reducing the isolation period from ten to five days.
“People want to live freely in Florida, without corporate masking creating a two-tier society and without overbearing isolation for children,” DeSantis was quoted as saying in this press release. “We are empowering health care practitioners to follow science, not Fauci’s status quo.”
“The State of Florida has widespread natural and vaccine-induced immunity,” Ladapo continued. “Evidence suggests that most secondary transmission occurs early on. Our state will continue to make decisions for Floridians rooted in sound science, not fear, whether they are working or in school.”
This new guidance, unlike CDC guidance, does not rely on masks or face coverings in a community setting, and cites a May 2020 study as evidence of the ineffectiveness of masks. The press release goes on to say that Florida’s new masking guidance “advises against wearing facial coverings in community settings,” and that “there is not strong evidence that masks reduce the transmission of respiratory illness.” Ultimately, the new guidelines state that employees of a corporation—which would include state universities such as New College—should not be mandated to wear a mask at work.
Additionally, the isolation period for all Floridians, including students and children in daycare centers, has been reduced to five days. After the five day period, Floridians are allowed to return to their work or school environment without an additional COVID-19 test, and the question of whether the student or child should remain masked after this five day period is left up to the parent, not the institution.
“The new five-day isolation guidance for COVID-19 issued by the FDH is based on science and was informed by access to treatments, the benefits and harms of isolation and widespread immunity,” the press release reads. “This guidance recognizes that the CDC’s guidance is vastly out of date and has forced Floridians to miss work and school even when it is safe to return.”
Furthermore, the new guidelines permit individual health care practitioners to treat COVID-19 patients with off-label prescriptions with the patient’s informed consent.
The CDC has also recently released new protocols as of Feb. 25 designed to identify COVID-19 levels by county, as announced by Vice President of Finance & Administration Chris Kinsley to the New College community on Mar. 1.
“CDC looks at the combination of three metrics—new COVID-19 admissions per 100,000 population in the past seven days, the percent of staffed inpatient beds occupied by COVID-19 patients and total new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 population in the past seven days—to determine the COVID-19 community level,” Kinsley explained in an email announcement.
As of Mar. 9, the U.S. is no longer in the top 10 list of countries with the most positive COVID-19 cases per day. The current number of New College students and employees reported to test positive for COVID-19 is zero, and both Sarasota and Manatee County qualify for a moderate and low COVID-19 risk level.
“There is no longer an expectation that community members will wear masks,” Kinsley announced in his Mar. 9 COVID-19 Weekly Update. “Please continue to respect the personal decision each of us must make on whether or not to wear a mask.”
Counseling and Wellness Center (CWC) Program Director Dr. Anne Fisher explained to a Catalyst reporter that New College has been following in the footsteps of the FDH and the Sarasota County Health Department when it comes to COVID-19 guidelines since the beginning. However, New College’s size means that navigating the pandemic on campus looks different here than at other universities.
“I think of us more as an aggregate living situation than an independent living situation,” Fisher said. “We’re on a weird edge…I kind of think of New College more like a cruise ship than a town, because we’re sort of in a bubble. People kind of stay here, they work with each other, there’s some going off campus and then they come back to our mothership. Sometimes when I meet with my other State University System (SUS) colleagues—because [all of the] counseling directors and health center directors, we all meet—they’re more like small cities or towns.”
With this in mind, Fisher said that the rest of the SUS has abandoned contract tracing since January, and with these new state guidelines, New College is now following suit. If a student tests positive, Fisher and Health Education Coordinator Susan Stahley will no longer be reaching out to those the student has been in high-risk contact with. It will be each student’s individual responsibility to, if they test positive, decide whether to alert those they’ve come into high-risk contact with and Student Health Services in order to isolate.
“I would hope what we can do is to encourage people to, if they test positive and have had high-risk contact, that they tell the people themselves,” Fisher said. “Or if they want us to tell them, if you let me know I’d be happy to provide a little support to that. But we’re not going to have the college chasing it down anymore.”
Similarly, New College will also be adhering to the five day isolation rule. Any residential student that tests positive and alerts Student Health Services will go into isolation, but those that have been in high-risk contact with said student will not need to go into quarantine, regardless of vaccination status.
“But if a student has high risk contact and wants to quarantine, maybe they talk with their roommates and they decide that they want to quarantine,” Fisher said. “We’re going to certainly accommodate them and try to be as helpful to everybody as we can, but we’re not going to mandate a quarantine.”
On-campus testing will still be available for the foreseeable future, although Fisher said that she and the CWC do not have access to those test results. Rapid test kits are also available in the CWC for students to pick up for free.
In his Mar. 1 COVID-19 Update, Kinsley also encourages students to continue using the symptom screener on their myNCF portal if they show symptoms and to make an appointment with Student Health Services if they suspect that they are sick.
Students who test positive are encouraged to contact Fisher or Interim Assistant Dean of Students Nicole Gelfert, and employees who test positive are encouraged to contact Interim Assistant Vice President of Human Resources Kristie Harris and their supervisor or Division Chair.