Few college students are landing in the hospital from the coronavirus but they remain the crosshairs of public officials who fear their parties and lax adherence to quarantine rules are bound to fuel community spread off-campus, hurting the vulnerable.
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill made national headlines when it became the first major college to revert to online learning after attempting to reopen, citing clusters of cases. However, since the pandemic began the college is aware of only two students who were tested at Campus Health and then treated at a hospital and released.
“Both were noncritical. These are the only instances we’re aware of,” university officials told The Washington Times.
The coronavirus discovered in Wuhan, China, in December 2019 has claimed nearly 1 million lives, including 200,000 in the U.S. as of midday Tuesday. Yet it seems that college students caught up in nationwide fears about transmission aren’t succumbing to the disease, which tends to hit older adults the hardest.
The State University of New York-Oneonta recorded over 670 cases, or about 10% of the student population, forcing it to switch to remote learning for the fall semester. Administrators scolded a handful of students who organized parties, fueling the spread, though the college has not recorded any deaths or hospitalizations from the disease.
Miami University in Ohio is testing aggressively and has recorded over 1,000 cases, but zero reports of hospitalizations or deaths among students.
President Trump highlighted the students’ durability in calling for in-person learning — and Big Ten football — to resume across the country.
“I said, ‘These are strong, young people. They’re going to do great, let’s get going,’” Mr. Trump told Minnesota supporters last week.
The survival rate should also soothe skittish parents who saw their children off to an uncertain semester.
But health officials are wringing their hands as they look beyond campus, saying it’s only a matter of time before rising case counts from Greek life and off-campus cavorting will spill into the community, reversing gains against the disease.
“We haven’t been tracking this as much as we should,” said Lawrence O. Gostin, a professor of health law at Georgetown University. “But we must assume that the college student is likely to spread the infection to their family, fellow students and neighbors.”
SUNY-Oneonta spokeswoman Kim MacLeod said “to date there has not been evidence of any spread to the wider community,” though local officials elsewhere said there’s reason to believe there’s been spillover.
“Community spread is an issue all over the country, so there’s certainly reason to believe cases spread from the university population into the general population,” said Todd McGee, a spokesman for the health department in Orange County, North Carolina, which contains UNC-Chapel Hill.
Among 50 large counties with the highest percentages of student residents, average infection rates have been more than three times higher than their states’ rates overall since Sept. 1, according to a new Associated Press analysis.
More than 1,600 American colleges and universities have revealed at least 88,000 cases, according to a New York Times tracker. The colleges have reported least 60 deaths since the pandemic began, yet most of the deaths were campus employees back in the spring, not students.
Students who fend off the disease might not be out of the woods. The coronavirus is a newly discovered disease, so the long-term effects of infection aren’t known.
Officials say young people who aren’t landing in the ICU still have a responsibility to the wider community. They’re using a mix of mandates or pleas as they track local numbers, viewing a high caseload among the campus cohort as a “canary in the coal mine” that portends an explosion of community spread.
In East Lansing, Michigan, about 40 fraternity and sorority houses are in a two-week quarantine after Ingham County Health Officer Linda S. Vail determined residents had known exposure to the disease.
The orders came on the heels over a recommended quarantine for all Michigan State University students. It lasts until Saturday.
“The exponential growth of COVID-19 cases must stop. I am concerned about the health and safety of the MSU community, and importantly, I am seriously concerned that unchecked transmission locally will affect the health and safety of all Ingham County residents,” Ms. Vail said.
The Pennsylvania Health Department said it’s seen a massive uptick in cases among people aged 19 to 24 around the state.
“We need your help,” state Health Secretary Rachel Levine said in a recent press conference. “College and university students are uniquely positioned to help change the course of the spread of this virus by changing and adapting your actions to protect yourself, your friends and others in the community.”
While officials urge vigilance, some of the campuses that tallied high case numbers early in the semester are seeing progress.
The University of Alabama says it’s seen a “dramatic decline” in new cases and the use of quarantine space. Its dashboard counts over 200 active cases, though than 2,100 individuals have recovered from infection.
“Evidenced by the testing rate of 1% throughout the UA System, our health and safety guidelines are effective. We are not aware of any UA students who are hospitalized,” spokeswoman Monica Watts said. “The university and the city collaborate closely on mitigation strategies, education programs and ordinances to prevent the virus from spreading in our communities.”
Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, said it is testing off-campus students with “wide-net and surveillance testing,” so it’s able to find and isolate the virus.
Classes began online on Aug. 17. The university said it tested all residents who moved into dorms the week of Sept. 14 and will continue widespread testing as in-person classes start this week.
William Hanage, an associate professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said proactive testing on campus is a positive step, even if it makes the case count looks daunting.
“Detecting them and isolating them and their contacts is good! A greater worry is the ability they have to transmit to others and this is probably happening more in the places without great testing,” he said in an email. “As we know, a large outbreak in the younger population doesn’t tend to stay there.”