Coronavirus: US college towns fear fall semester will cause massive uptick in Covid cases

Danielle Zoellner
·4-min read
Getty Images
Getty Images

US college towns experienced a significant economic hit from the coronavirus pandemic after students fled university campuses in the spring to finish the majority of the semester online.

But now as the fall semester approaches, every college across the nation is preparing its own version of what classes will look like – whether they be in-person, online, or a hybrid mixture of both options.

A concern across college towns now is what might happen to coronavirus infection rates if students return to their campuses, potentially putting local residents at risk.

Three Connecticut towns – Mansfield, West Hartford and Windham – wrote a letter to state officials to implore them to make stricter restrictions prior to college students returning to their respective campuses.

“As host communities for large numbers of students, we believe it is absolutely necessary to have further restrictions on outdoor and indoor gatherings to protect the health of both our permanent residents and our student residents,” the letter read, the Hartford Courant reported.

Multiple states have reported in recent months that young people between the ages of 20 to 30 are increasingly driving the spread of the coronavirus.

From 5 July to 1 August, people under 30 represented 43 per cent of Connecticut’s cases, a stark increase from earlier in the pandemic.

This has been noticed in other states as well. In New Mexico, 44 per cent of those who are testing positive for the virus are under 30. In California, people in their 20s make up the largest number of cases in the state, with people in their 30s following closely behind.

Experts have noted the increase in cases among young people could be due to them holding frontline jobs – such as delivery drivers, servers, and grocery store clerks – but it also comes with younger people thinking they’re immune to serious symptoms from the novel virus.

Early data has suggested younger people are more likely to have mild to no symptoms from Covid-19, but the potential for a number of students to be asymptomatic carriers in college towns has concerned state and local officials.

Charlottesville Mayor Nikuyah Walker called the University of Virginia’s plan to bring students back to campus a “recipe for disaster”.

“I, for one, do not understand why the students are coming back into the community from all over the globe and why we would take that chance,” Ms Walker said.

The county health director in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, has asked for classes at the University of North Carolina to be completely online for the first five weeks amid fear students could spread the virus. Similarly, the mayor of Athens, Georgia, warned University of Georgia students could put other residents in danger if masks were not enforced on and around campus.

The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has acknowledged that shared living spaces, such as dorms, could act like nursing homes when it comes to how the novel virus spreads, making these areas their own hotspots.

“Shared housing residents often gather together closely for social, leisure, and recreational activities, shared dining, laundry facilities, stairwells, and elevators and may have challenges with social distancing to prevent the spread of Covid-19,” the CDC wrote on its website.

It was advised for students to maintain social distancing, wearing masks, and following other guidelines to prevent the spread of the novel virus. But these recommendations would all rely on colleges to put plans in place for how to enforce the rules with students.

Dr Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, addressed the challenge of students going back to college when speaking with Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont.

The expert, who is the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said he was actually impressed by most universities’ back-to-school plans and thought college towns would be able to handle the challenges if an outbreak were to occur.

“You’ve got to be careful if you’ve got people coming in from outside,” Dr Fauci said. “But I think if they maintain the guidelines they’ve put together for people coming back, they should be fine.”

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