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Why I’m not convinced reopening will work

| Monday, July 6, 2020

When Notre Dame first announced plans to maintain in-person instruction this fall, I was delighted. I was ready to see professors and friends again. College was a welcome return to normalcy, in a year where the abnormal was active enough.

Since then, though, my initial excitement has faded for a deep concern. In Erin Hoffmann Harding’s June 22 correspondence, the University announced that “campus will be as safe as any other environment, and the risk of acquiring the virus on campus should be very low.” While the protocols behind this declaration are extensive, they are nevertheless insufficient. There are two questionable assumptions at the base of this plan: First, that COVID-19 will not significantly endanger most members of the University community; second, that proposed protocols, and assumed adherence to them, will effectively contain the virus.

A well-established fact about COVID-19 is the heightened risk borne by older adults and those with pre-existing conditions. Many faculty, staff members and students fall into these categories. We cannot forget them when formulating a reopening plan.

Even healthy students, though, aren’t invincible. The Notre Dame lifestyle brings students into contact with one another all the time, through class, dorms, dining, exercise, study groups and more. The sheer number of people with whom we share sustained contact is unique to university life.

Unfortunately, each additional person we encounter may infect us. Like doctors or nurses, Notre Dame students who fall ill are likely to have acquired the virus from many sources. As a result, we would expect sick students to host more SARS-CoV-2 viruses at any given time than an average person who gets infected, say, from one person at the grocery store. This corresponds to what scientists call an increased viral load. There is evidence that larger viral loads correspond with greater risk of mortality from COVID-19, and by inference, increased illness severity.

Notre Dame students face other challenges that could increase virulence. We are among the most sleep-deprived of all American undergraduates, averaging around 6.6 hours of sleep per weeknight. We also experience high degrees of stress due to hard work and extensive student involvement. Both sleep deprivation and stress are known to curtail immune function, and by inference raise our susceptibility to illness.

The average person of college age faces little risk of death from COVID-19, with some estimates placing this group’s mortality rate below 0.01%. However, we do not have data on how these rates change on college campuses, accounting for the factors mentioned above. Besides, COVID-19 can bring about significant long-term harm without resulting in death. Severe cases have been linked to heart complications and acute kidney injury, the latter found even in children. Cases even in otherwise healthy young adults have been linked to pathological blood clotting, including strokes. These cardiac, renal and hematological conditions can raise risk for significant health complications later in life. Many hospitalizations also result in long-term pulmonary damage from lung scarring, due to both the virus itself and ventilator use.

COVID-19 can also cause significant neurological complications, and many hospitalized patients suffer mental health challenges after discharge. Such literal brain damage will impair student performance in coursework. While much has rightly been made of achievement gaps in remote learning, should we replace that gap with one between recovering students and those who have not fallen ill?

We cannot assume that healthy students are somehow immune to these afflictions. Though pre-existing conditions and advanced age do worsen COVID-19 prognosis, otherwise healthy patients represent a significant portion of the severely ill. Though their risk may be lower, it is hardly zero.

You may argue that, even if COVID-19 is dangerous, we shouldn’t worry about it if we can control its spread. It doesn’t matter how harmful the disease could be if nobody contracts it, right?

Unfortunately, Notre Dame’s protocols, though extensive, fall short in unavoidable ways. They cannot adequately keep infectious people off campus, and they assume unrealistic degrees of student compliance.

The current plan has three provisions to keep infectious people away from public spaces: self-examinations, infrared thermometers in public areas and widespread testing. All three measures can identify someone who shows COVID-19 symptoms. But people without symptoms or who are yet to develop them can spread the virus to others, too. The University can only identify these individuals through testing.

Current diagnostic tests are not accurate enough to fulfill such an important role. Governments and researchers are distributing tests faster than their effectiveness can be proven. One study found that, if a patient has a 50% chance of having COVID-19 upon testing, nearly one in four negative results from current tests will be incorrect.

Somewhat accurate information is better than no information at all. But since these tests are our only way to keep non-symptomatic people out of public spaces, “somewhat accurate information” isn’t good enough. Take the story of the Fort Benning Army training site in Georgia. Upon arrival, all 640 recruits and instructors were tested for COVID-19, and the four positive cases were isolated. Only eight days later, almost one quarter of the population tested positive. Clearly, some infectious people must have slipped through the testing protocols.

Can we count on masks and social distancing to keep us safe anyway? Only if everyone maintains these measures in every context where transmission is possible. I find it unreasonable to assume such widespread compliance.

In the last three months, the decline of American enthusiasm for health protocols has been obvious. Some consider such defiance a political statement. Frustration with lock down is understandable and inevitable, but it comes at the cost of increased virus transmission.

We students will feel this frustration, too. Many of us want to return to see our friends’ faces again, preferably with no mask in the way. Proposed protocols will impede our one shot at the college experience, with its parties and experimentation and constant stream of people to meet. Will college students, at the biological height of our risk-taking tendencies, knowing that we’ll never get this semester back, abstain from all high-risk activities for four months? America couldn’t handle three.

While the University can enforce its guidelines on campus, what can they do to stop off-campus activities? Parties are going to happen, and you can’t expect people to wear masks or maintain distance on the dance floor three drinks in. Many people will take their masks off at friends’ homes.

The academic excellence of Notre Dame doesn’t help. Will a student late for a class or test conduct a thorough self-examination before leaving? Since students work so hard during the week, should we be surprised when they play hard over the weekend?

And do we expect people to wear masks in the bathroom? The SARS-CoV-2 virus has been found in solid wastes, even after respiratory tests read negative. Toilet flushing can launch these viral particles into the air, which can then possibly spread through inhalation. Since Notre Dame dorms have mostly public and lidless toilets, anyone not wearing a mask could acquire the virus in the bathroom. Can we expect people to always mask up in the setting known most for its privacy?

I don’t intend to cast moral judgment here. But young adults across the world are contracting and spreading COVID-19 at accelerating rates, due in large part to detrimental behaviors like these. The University cannot expect students to “do the right thing” through November.

These concerns and many others leave me uncomfortable about attending in-person classes this fall. However, the University has not yet informed us of how to opt out. I ask that we students, even those without heightened risk, receive guidelines for gap semesters and the election of fully remote learning as soon as possible. I also ask that we receive financial aid packages, including information on what costs will be refunded should in-person learning be suspended after Aug. 10, early enough to make an informed decision.

Finally, I ask whether we’re okay with the human cost of an in-person semester. I can attest to both the value of the Notre Dame experience and the struggles of remote learning. But life will go on if we wait until it is safe to return to campus. Can we say the same to those who will be victims of our hasty reopening?

Joey O’Donnell


June 29

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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