Expand mask distribution

Eva Strelitz-Block

Editor’s Note: This column first appeared in the March 26 issue of The Daily Texan.

Today, more and more people in Texas are choosing not to wear masks following Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision to rescind the mask mandate, despite data indicating that the COVID-19 pandemic is still ongoing. In March, UT President Jay Hartzell affirmed that masks are still required on campus, no matter the status of the statewide mask mandate. 

According to Susan Hochman, associate director for assessment, communications and health information technology at UHS, UT has a program that includes having 25,000 masks on hand to provide to students who forget their masks at various campus locations. Additionally, Dean’s Squad Public Health Ambassadors walk the Forty Acres daily with surgical masks in case they encounter maskless students.

However, while these steps are important, they are neither sufficient nor adequately publicized. It is important now more than ever that UT expand its current mask distribution operations and publicize this initiative to students. 

At this point in the coronavirus pandemic, officially over a year, it is clear that wearing masks is one of the most critical personal and public health strategies for mitigating the spread of COVID-19 and protecting our communities. 

However, I will admit that when I do venture into the world, I often forget to bring my mask despite the many masks laying around every room in my apartment. 

Hochman encourages students to remember that even though it seems like the pandemic has lasted a lifetime, masking is a relatively new practice for most people. She provided her best advice for how students can more consistently integrate masks into their lives. 

“You don’t walk out of the house without your phone,” Hochman said. “There’s something you are always taking with you. I like to give the advice of keeping your mask by that item, so there’s sort of a natural association.” 

This is solid advice. But it is not currently an adequate strategy. 

UT can and should do better. First, UT should provide free masks to students in all highly-trafficked buildings on campus, including dorms. This ought to include buildings that house labs and in-person classrooms as well as buildings open for students to study in. 

Second, UT should make sure that students are aware of where masks are available. In fact, Protect Texas Together, UT’s online COVID-19 response hub, does not have any information about UT’s mask distribution offerings online. This page could include free mask locations and information about mask availability. 

“I was not aware that UT was distributing free masks in the first place,” said Soren Ettinger DeCou, Plan II and biomedical engineering junior. “Complying with PPE guidelines on campus would be easier for students if they had ready access to masks.”

Students, staff and administrators alike have worked together all year to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Providing students with additional access to masks and making the public aware of where masks are located on campus are two simple steps that UT can take to finish out this year strong. This will help build our community’s confidence that we can anticipate a successful “return to near normal” next fall. 

Strelitz-Block is a Plan II and anthropology sophomore from Austin, Texas.