Brainstorm: The Risks of Returning to Campus

Anika Mittu, Reporter

As some Northwestern students prepare to return to campus in the fall, what do they need to know about the risks of college life during the pandemic? Three COVID-19 experts at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine weigh in.

XINKUN WANG: A college campus really is an incubation area for the virus… 

MERCEDES CARNETHON: …There certainly are risks to the individual… 

JALINE GERARDIN: …If the University reopens, it needs to realize that it is going to have outbreaks.

ANIKA MITTU: Northwestern is preparing to bring students back to Evanston for Fall Quarter. Administrators have released plans to keep the University community safe, from requiring students and faculty to wear masks in classrooms to daily symptom monitoring for students, faculty and staff. Still, there’s no guarantee these measures will prevent an outbreak. As students decide whether to return, what do three of Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine COVID-19 experts have to say about the safety of returning to campus? 

Hi everyone, this is Anika Mittu, and welcome back to Brainstorm, a podcast exploring all things science, health and tech. 

ANIKA MITTU: To understand the risks of bringing students back, we first have to look at the larger environment they’ll be entering when they return: Chicago. Though Illinois recently entered Phase 4 of its reopening plan, with Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot warning the city may have to return to Phase 3 if COVID-19 cases keep rising, Feinberg Prof. Mercedes Carnethon, vice chair of preventive medicine, worries the continuous reopening of nonessential businesses may lead to a surge in cases as students just as students start arriving in Evanston. 

MERCEDES CARNETHON: I’m very fearful that we will see a rise again in our rates around September that may hit levels in the late fall that might lead us most certainly to need to roll back some of the loosening of protections that we’ve put into place.

ANIKA MITTU: Carnethon also suspects when the colder weather hits, people will likely move their get-togethers indoors, leading to more cases as people who have the virus may gather in closer proximity. Dr. Jaline Gerardin, an assistant professor of preventive medicine at Feinberg who models COVID-19 containment models to help the Illinois Department of Public Health predict disease distribution, also notes the virus may spread more easily in the fall because of the temperature change.

JALINE GERARDIN: Coronaviruses, in general like a lot of other viruses, do better in some temperatures than in others. We expect the virus is intrinsically more transmissible and survives better at those cooler temperatures. 

ANIKA MITTU: Anticipating a rise in cases and transmission this fall, Gerardin says outbreaks will likely be unavoidable on college campuses. 

JALINE GERARDIN: The question is, then, how big of an outbreak are they going to have? That can be controlled by prevention, testing, contact tracing. If you are slipping on any of these categories, then you’re acknowledging that that means that as a consequence, you’re going to have a larger outbreak.

ANIKA MITTU: In the “prevention” category, the University will require mask-wearing in all shared campus spaces, offer socially-distant classrooms and serve grab-and-go dining hall meals. But Gerardin is more concerned about what happens when staff members aren’t looking.

JALINE GERARDIN: If I remember correctly from college, I spent a lot of time just hanging out in other people’s rooms, just socializing. There’s no way for the college to prevent that, probably, unless they’re really being very, very strict. And even then, I don’t know that that’s where they want or can go.

ANIKA MITTU: The University’s expectations for undergraduate residents during COVID-19 state no more than three individuals, including a resident, or a number of people equal to double the room’s occupancy can gather in a residential room whichever is lower. That means if you live in a single-occupancy room, you’d only be able to have one other person in the room with you, unlike your peers in higher occupancy rooms who can have a maximum of three people, including themselves, in the room. However, the University website does not state how these rules will be enforced. When asked how concerned she thinks Northwestern students should be about returning to campus, Gerardin declined to comment. 

ANIKA MITTU: Under the assumption there will be outbreaks, Gerardin says the next step is testing. The University plans to test all students living in residence halls upon arrival, and any students living off-campus will need a negative test before participating in in-person classes or activities. Recurring testing will continue for students in residence halls, while students living off-campus will be randomly tested. Any student showing symptoms will be tested as well. 

Dr. Xinkun Wang, a research associate professor of biochemistry and molecular genetics at Feinberg, leads an effort to expand the number of tests processed at Northwestern Medicine hospitals. He’s hopeful continuous testing will make Northwestern safe. 

XINKUN WANG: When somebody shows symptoms, get them tested right away and quarantine them right away. That’s kind of a realistic measure that’s going to keep the campus relatively safe.

ANIKA MITTU: But testing is imperfect. Wang warns of false negatives, when an individual initially tests negative for COVID-19 even though they do have the virus. Researchers at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine studied false-negative rates with over 1,000 COVID-19 tests and found that by the time the average patient began showing symptoms, the false negative rate was 38 percent. And even after eight days of infection, when the test performed best, one in five patients with the virus tested negative. What could a false negative lead to on a college campus?

XINKUN WANG: The false negative is basically giving you a false sense of security. If a student gets the test and then the test result is negative, then he or she may feel totally fine, go to certain areas and expose other people. That kind of false sense of security is going to cause a problem.

ANIKA MITTU: Wang also worries about students who think that their youth will protect them from suffering the symptoms if they get the virus.

XINKUN WANG: Some students may feel they’re young, they’re not in the vulnerable group, making them overconfident. We know that’s not the case, right? A lot of the patients are also young people. They show symptoms. They also suffer. So they are not invincible. 

ANIKA MITTU: Even with the risks of returning to campus, Carnethon wants students to adjust to the new normal. 

MERCEDES CARNETHON: Because this pandemic is not going to go away overnight, we need to test out some strategies and find ways to try to live safely in the presence of the pandemic. It is a bold move and it is a move with many risks to open up a college campus. When you have a college campus, you have people coming in from all over the country. You’ve got young adults, some of whom may hold varying positions about whether or not they wish to use protective equipment universally or safely. You have people of a range of ages and health status who are interacting on a college campus. 

ANIKA MITTU: Still, she admits there is no guarantee students will be able to avoid the virus. 

MERCEDES CARNETHON: We have a lot of different things in place to try to make it as safe as possible. But there is no no-risk situation.

ANIKA MITTU: When Gerardin was asked if campus will be safe enough to return, she posed her answer as a question.

JALINE GERARDIN: Do you think that people would have unofficial parties?

ANIKA MITTU: That’s all that I have for today. Thank you so much for listening. 

This episode was reported and produced by me, Anika Mittu. The summer managing editors of The Daily are Sneha Dey and James Pollard, and the summer editor-in-chief is Emma Edmund.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @anika_mittu

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