Colleges across the U.S. are reporting outbreaks of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, leaving experts and residents concerned about the pandemic worsening in certain areas.
A survey by the New York Times found more than 88,000 COVID-19 cases on more than 1,100 college campuses. Another analysis by USA Today found that communities with a lot of college students represent 19 of the country’s top 25 hotspots.
College towns “are seeing spikes due to socialization — which is to be expected,” Robyn Gershon, clinical professor of epidemiology at New York University’s School of Public Health, told Yahoo Finance, adding that it’s “not hard to imagine that some of these cases will enter the local community, where much more vulnerable people might be placed at risk.”
Dr. Farshad Marvasti, director of public health and prevention at the University of Arizona, told Yahoo Finance that “as we get into flu season, where health care resources will be strained further and people with other acute exacerbations of chronic diseases like heart attacks or strokes or other emergencies will not be able to get the care we need,” surges of transmissions on college campuses are “a telltale sign that could be the starting point of a second wave.”
While experts wait a few weeks to see if data shows a larger rise in cases, college football season is ramping up. Even though most colleges are comprehensively testing athletes, some observers are worried about possible outbreaks within stadiums.
‘The entire campus just erupted into chaos’
“There is an increased level of fear,” Reverend Laura Patterson, a pastor in Athens, told Yahoo Finance. “It’s really infuriating too… as the person who has been here all this time, taking these precautions, quarantining, doing all the things to keep your community safe. And it’s like the folks who only live here nine months out of the year just kind of show up and change that whole dynamic.”
At James Madison University (JMU) in Harrisonburg, Virginia, students shared that frustration having to move out of their dorms just weeks after starting in-person classes after a coronavirus outbreak.
“I was in my dorm room when we got the announcement, and I could hear everyone’s hurt and confusion at being sent home in six days,” Calle Knight-Van Dyke, a freshman at JMU, told Yahoo Finance. “Once it was announced, the entire campus just erupted into chaos. There were real parties, and kids drinking in the streets… it was complete madness.”
Others were questioning why they were even back in Harrisonburg in first place.
“I stand firm in the belief that the university was risking lives by bringing us back in the first place,” Josh Clements, a senior engineering major at JMU, told Yahoo Finance. “We now have a massive amount of students with the virus many of which who have not been formally diagnosed. The university took a selfish and greedy approach of putting lives at risk to make up for their financial mistakes.”
Clements also echoed the pastor’s comments in calling on leadership to make a decision quickly.
“I definitely could definitely foresee another outbreak if the University moves back in person,” said Clements. “If they take the monetary motivator and reopen then I would definitely see another outbreak coming our way. It is going to really show where the priorities are in the eyes of our higher-ups and leadership.”
‘It’s all these systemic failures’
President Donald Trump told reporters on Thursday that it’s “much safer for students to live on campus” as opposed to “going home, spreading the virus to high-risk Americans.” The president also emphasized that while there has been a surge in cases on college campuses, “not one has been hospitalized.”
The situation on the ground tells a different story. Patterson, who recently moved to Athens from a more rural part of Georgia over the summer, had been eager to get started at a new church.
“Then I get here,” she said, “and it’s just this kind of nightmare situation — really high infection rates, feeling like you have as an individual no control over the situation.”
But she didn’t blame the students for the spread. Instead, she pointed to “bad leadership at the top” for rushing reopening.
“If we’re going to talk about why are things this bad? It’s all these systemic failures, and sins of poverty and greed, and apathy,” Patterson said. “Our world is broken… we as a country do not have a system of loving our neighbor… we think of it only as individual action.”
Aarthi Swaminathan is a reporter for Yahoo Finance covering education. If you have a story idea, or would like to share how your college or school is preparing to reopen, reach out to her at firstname.lastname@example.org