I took the multiple sclerosis diagnosis pretty well, all things considered.

Yeah, MS sucks. But I knew I had people to rely on, and not just my amazing friends and family. My professors and administrators had shown sympathy for my neurological problems and a willingness to be flexible and compassionate. 

As I weighed the complicated calculus of treatments that I’d have to be on for the rest of my life — a weaker injection with few side effects against a more effective pill that would leave me immunocompromised — I knew the University of Montana had my back. 

The greatest symbol of that support was the mask mandate, instated independently of the Montana University System, that to me represented 

UM’s commitment to making sure its most vulnerable could participate in University life. 

Two days after I was diagnosed, I got the news that the mask mandate would be going away. 

The University hopes the mass immunity of people like me who’ve had the COVID-19 vaccination will make masking unnecessary. But a quick look at any graph of cases since the pandemic began will reveal numbers higher than before we had vaccines. 

To be clear, the COVID-19 vaccine works. It’s very effective at keeping people from catching and spreading the virus. But only if they’ve had the vaccine. The University cannot count on the vaccination rate of its student body when it won’t even collect data on it, let alone mandate COVID-19 vaccination. It can only estimate based on the county rate of 60% fully vaccinated. 

While a 60% vaccination rate is decent, it’s not herd immunity, so the vaccine will not stop community spread. Those who choose to remain unvaccinated and the institutions that enable that choice have made other mitigation measures — such as masking — necessary if we want to keep numbers low and people healthy. 

There’s another way to talk to people unmasked and still be safe: being outdoors. Because COVID-19 is transmitted via the air, ventilation matters. Which makes it all the more baffling that UM has chosen now to repeal the mask mandate, when its second-best means of reducing classroom transmission is totally off the table. 

Without a mandate, we must count on classroom HVAC systems to keep us safe. Considering some multi-story buildings at UM don’t even have elevators, I have my doubts about that happening. Of course, teachers could open some windows — if they’re willing to brave the howling wind outside or the chance of a bird flying in.

I do understand why the University and some students want the mask mandate gone. Any mask mandate is an infringement on personal liberty, and it’s unproductive to pretend otherwise. Yet we accept all sorts of infringements on our personal liberties with the intent and purpose of serving a higher need. For instance, seatbelt laws. 

It is the responsibility of an institution such as UM to weigh the costs of a mask mandate against the reduction of risk it promises. Like my decision on what treatment to pursue, it’s a calculation with many variables. 

One variable is the personal liberty and quality of life of those who don’t want to wear a mask despite knowing it’ll protect those around them. Another variable is the life, health and participation in public spaces of the immunocompromised and elderly. 

It disheartens me to see UM weigh personal choice so heavily that the right to choose selfishness is placed above the health of those who have no choice in their vulnerability. At the very least, I hope UM chooses to also value the personal choice of its faculty and allow them to mandate masks within their own classes, so they can offer the compassion and vulnerability their employer won’t. To do otherwise would be a slap in the face to the people who make up the backbone of UM. 

Ultimately, I’ll be fine. I have options that leave my immune system intact, and I’ll probably take them. But others are not so lucky — immunocompromisation usually isn’t opt-in. It’s an incredibly alienating feeling to have potentially lifesaving compassion ripped out from under your feet. 

That compassion is what compelled me to write this. I do not pick up a pen every time a government or business removes its restrictions — I’ve learned to not expect them to prioritize the needs of the vulnerable. But amid all UM’s foibles and flaws, I have seen great compassion and leadership from individuals and the University as a whole. Even now, my professors are all determined to keep their students safe despite UM denying them the best means to do so. 

I urge UM to stand strong in that compassion and continue to create a community where everyone takes action to protect those around them. I urge UM to take the stance that vulnerable lives matter more than a numbers game. I urge UM to accept the responsibility it must accept when the choices of those who live and work here have ramifications for everyone around them. 

There is no individual in a pandemic. All we can truly do alone is die.