‘There’s no roadmap for this’: a conversation with Brandeis COVID-19 czar Morgen Bergman
Morgen Bergman serves as the associate provost for academic and strategic initiatives, reporting directly to Provost Carol Fierke. For the past two years, she has led the University’s COVID-19 response team.
Students at Brandeis consider the daily health assessment, weekly testing, masking, and other COVID-19 prevention and mitigation efforts as mere routines now. But for Morgen Bergman, head of the University’s COVID-19 response team, creating and instituting these measures has been an over two-year-long, around-the-clock effort. Bergman has worked at Brandeis since 2008, with a gap between 2016-19.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Justice (March 14): With the loosening of the restrictions a couple of weeks ago, has Brandeis moved from a pandemic to an endemic phase of COVID?
Morgan Bergman: Brandeis is in a transitional phase of moving from an operational response of the pandemic to learning to live with COVID in our world. Thankfully, our campus has an incredibly high rate of vaccinations and boosters, which has been a key factor in decreasing the effect of COVID on our campus community.
TJ (Feb. 15): Do you feel misunderstood by the Brandeis community because you could be looked at as the “bad cop” of COVID restrictions?
MB: I felt really nothing but support from the Brandeis community. If I were to say I work at a university to most Americans, they would say, “Oh, all the college students partying it up.” At Brandeis, our students take this really seriously. They value their education. They value what we offer at Brandeis. They value one another. I think the social solidarity here has been unbelievably amazing and inspiring, and it's been nothing short of a pleasure to get to be part of this effort to make this community a safe place to study, to live, to learn.
I think this is hard no matter what you do. I get emails all the time from people who are screaming at me [saying] “How can you make us wear masks?” or “How can you not do this one thing that I think you should be doing?” So the pendulum has swung on both sides. But I think that for the vast majority of people, their experience has been quite remarkable. It's not to say it's not hard. The whole world is going through this. We're all going through this. It is hard. It's not easy. It changes day to day. And I think we've been able to pull through together quite successfully. And have there been hiccups? Yes. Have there been things that we're learning and trying to make that work? Yes. But I think we've tried to be really responsive to the needs of the community and to work together to make it the best experience that we can. There's no roadmap for this.
TJ (Feb. 15): What would you say was a misstep by the Brandeis administration in their COVID response?
MB: I think that we had opportunities to perhaps communicate things a little bit more clearly to everybody in the campus community. I like to call them opportunities for excellence that we can work towards being better. We receive feedback on this constantly, and we work really hard to find that right balance for communicating information and not overwhelming people with details. It's a really hard balance to strike. It comes from a place of care and it comes from a place of wanting to help people know what's going on, but I think it can also come across as too much at once, so that has been a struggle for everyone.
TJ (March 14): Brandeis’ close contact quarantine policy has been criticized for being stricter than the CDC’s, with Brandeis requiring students to isolate after being exposed to COVID, something that the CDC does not recommend for vaccinated and boosted people. How did the administration think through this decision and end up at this conclusion?
MB: As with all of our policies, the quarantine policy is firmly based in the analysis of our data. We carefully watch the conversion rate of the close contacts identified, and we are continuing to see positive cases develop — even on day 5 of quarantine. Therefore, for the health and safety of our campus community, we have continued to quarantine community members who have been identified as close contacts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 on our campus.
TJ (March 14) : How would you like students to think about COVID on campus in the coming weeks and months? With some students feeling more cautious of COVID (i.e. wearing a KN95 mask at all times indoors) and others not at all worried, can you lay out a direction for where Brandeis is going in its COVID response?
MB: This transitional period is going to mean something different for each individual. I would encourage everyone to conduct a risk analysis of each activity in which they engage. For example, “Will I be in a crowded indoor setting?”: WEAR A MASK. “Will I be in a setting with a few close friends, who I trust to test and be COVID-safe?”: safer to remove a mask. “Will I be outdoors?”: much safer to remove a mask.
I'd like to encourage each individual to take their health seriously — if symptoms of any kind emerge, stay home and test! At the same time, I'd like to encourage each of us to weigh the risks and to do what's necessary according to the level of risk. It's especially important after two years of dealing with the stress of the pandemic and political and societal upheaval we’re experiencing that we re-center ourselves to think about tending to our whole person — our emotional health, our mental health, in addition to our physical health.
For those who may feel uncomfortable with the easing restrictions, perhaps to start, it might help to make a small experiment to see how it feels to take off your mask in a safer place and see the faces of others — their smiles, their full expressions — and to share yourself in that way too. See how it goes, see how you feel, see what the results are, and continue to analyze the risk of a situation and make an informed decision.
For those who are not worried at all and engaging in riskier behaviors without consideration to the potential risks, be prepared to have COVID and isolate or be in quarantine and to gracefully and respectfully comply with campus rules, understanding that these rules are in place to protect our community from the spread of COVID.
One of the things that we've learned so much from this pandemic is the importance of how our individual choices, decisions, and behaviors affect others. Our dedication to the well-being of our community by being conscious and aware of our choices and deeds has been at the core of our success during the pandemic; and, just because “official” restrictions may be easing does not make this individual dedication to social solidarity any less important.
As [Alexis de] Tocqueville pointed out, “even the best laws cannot maintain a constitution despite mores, whereas the latter turn even the most unfavorable position and the worst laws to good account." The mores that our community has emulated throughout this pandemic, in addition to our policies, have allowed us to maintain our success. Let’s remind ourselves of our values — that we value and care for one as another — as we live, work, and learn together during this period of transition.
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