Science says: Colleges should all reopen (with precautions)
World-class universities are among America’s most treasured institutions. Unfortunately, several universities have recently announced their plans to shut down in response to new COVID-19 cases among students. That’s wrong: Universities should stay open, even when they see an increase in cases.
Virtual learning is a poor substitute for the education and development that happen on campus. The students most at risk of falling behind from distance learning are those from lower- and middle-income families. Minority students are 50 percent less likely than others to return if colleges close campuses.
We can’t afford a generation forever disadvantaged by higher-education institutions’ decisions to limit in-person classes. As President Trump has said repeatedly, the cure can’t be worse than the disease.
Science tells us that young adults are at extremely low risk for serious illness or death from COVID-19. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data shows that only 0.2 percent of deaths have been in those under age 25.
That’s fewer than 400 deaths in a country of 330 million. That’s also fewer than the 407 from influenza, 4,685 from accidents, 6,759 from suicides and 5,540 from homicides reported in the latest National Vital Statistics report from the CDC.
For those 18 to 29, the risk is 10 times less than for people 40 to 49, 30 times less than for those 50 to 64, 90 times less than for those 65 to 74, 220 times less than for those 75 to 84 and 630 times less than for those 85 and older.
The Stanford epidemiologist John Ioannidis recently summed up what the entire world’s data consistently demonstrate: The risk for children and young adults dying from the novel coronavirus is “almost zero.”
CDC data confirm that hospitalization rates for those 18 to 29 are also very small compared to older groups: one-fourth the rates of people 50 to 64, one-fifth of those 65 to 74, one-eighth of those 75 to 84, and one-thirteenth of those over 85. At the pandemic’s peak week, hospitalization rates for those 18 to 29 equaled 4.9 per 100,000, compared to the peak of 66.7 of those 85 or older.
We are already seeing the negative effects of students not attending school. Almost three-fourths of those aged 18 to 24 reported at least one mental-health symptom by the end of June. A quarter of that age group contemplated suicide in the previous 30 days.
Instead of shuttering their doors, schools should publish plans based on their unique circumstances, diligently protecting high-risk populations on campus. Overall, though, universities are relatively low-risk, young environments. Even most university faculty aren’t at significant risk; two-thirds of them are under 55; only 13 percent are over 65.
Yes, cases will increase among young people as they socially interact, but that shouldn’t be a cause for panic if people adhere to CDC mitigation measures to protect the vulnerable.
The sensationalistic phrase “school outbreaks” is misleading: These are typically “cases” detected by testing, not clinically significant illness. Indeed, zero hospitalizations have occurred among the first 25,941 “cases” detected by testing.
In fact, if schools send students home, they will create greater health risks for the nation. Homes are higher-risk settings than schools and are more likely to include older family members. Global data consistently show that homes are where most cases spread.
When students are sick, they should stay away from class, as they should with other illnesses. Instead of panicking about cases with either no symptoms or mild symptoms that will generally resolve, schools should implement mitigation measures: Maintain limits on indoor groups. Hold large-group activities outside. Treat symptomatic patients. Monitor local hospital capacity.
These measures, including testing, are aimed at protecting the vulnerable, preventing the spread into high-risk environments and keeping students in the low-risk campus environment. The point isn’t to detect spread among low-risk students.
The president’s approach is based on the demands of science and common sense. Our universities, the best in the world, should think through their policies and use their resources to stay open.
It’s critical to our nation, it’s safer and it will achieve the most important goal of all — educating our young people, the nation’s most precious resource.
Scott W. Atlas, MD, is special adviser to the president, a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force and a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.
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