By Lily Vining || Contributing Writer
Last week, the United States reached a tragic landmark: 200,000 lives lost to the coronavirus pandemic since February. And that number is far from tapering off.
In March, long before most understood the severity of the virus, Dr. Anthony Fauci announced that COVID-19 could kill as many as 200,000 Americans. While the doctor was criticized for instilling unwarranted fear in the population, his initial estimate appears to only show the minimum deaths the country will face.
Nationwide, reports estimate that at least one million deaths were caused by COVID-19 in the past year. While the United States only accounts for 4% of the global population, the country claims 20% of the total casualties from the virus. Experts predict that the U.S., as well as other densely populated northern countries like Britain, will face another surge of cases this fall as temperatures decline.
While the risk of death from COVID-19 is highest among older populations, younger generations are still at high risk of contracting the virus. According to the CDC, over 1.2 million cases of coronavirus, 23.7% of the nation’s total, were in people between the ages of 18-29. This age range makes up the largest percentage of total cases in the country, far exceeding older adults. This figure continues to increase as 20 million students head back to college campuses this fall.
The CDC also reports that during August through September 5 this year, COVID-19 cases among persons aged 18–22 years increased 55% nationally. The greatest increases were reported in the Northeast (144%) and Midwest (123%). Throughout August and September, the number of positive cases among this age group increased exponentially. The largest increase in cases among young adults took place in densely populated university areas.
Though many people, including government leaders, have dismissed the disease as only beig dangerous to the elderly and immunocompromised, more young and seemingly healthy individuals are becoming sick. The largest concern, however, is the fact that the majority of young people infected with COVID-19 show only minor symptoms, often only resembling a mild cold. Those experiencing imperceptible or no symptoms are highly likely to spread the virus to others in their community, including older adults and people with underlying medical conditions, who are at high risk for life-threatening complications.
Critics claim that greater efforts of colleges and universities to test students have led to an apparent increase in infection among young adults. However, while testing increased 1.5 fold amongst college-age students during August, there was a greater increase— 2.1 fold— in the number of positive cases in this age group. The statistical significance of the data shows that other factors contributed to the spread of the virus amongst young people.
College students are proven to be less likely to follow safety protocols put in place by the CDC and other health organizations, which not only puts those individuals at risk but also leads to greater spread amongst their peers. College students are also more likely to take risks, since they are still developing neurological processes related to critical thinking. “Their decision making […] is more about ‘what’s in the moment, what am I missing out on, what is the thing that would make me happiest at this moment?'” said Ben Locke, the senior director for Counseling & Psychological Services at Pennsylvania State University.
Other social aspects have driven increased interaction and exposure among young adults. Key aspects of development for young adults, including deepening social connections and achieving peer approval, are strained by COVID safety guidelines. This is likely the reason that many students are willing to break protocol to attend social gatherings. “Peers are so essential that it’s no coincidence that we’re seeing these behaviors more and that they’re particularly peer-oriented,” says Hannah Schacter, an assistant professor and developmental psychologist at Wayne State University.
While colleges and universities are working hard to keep students safe and reduce the spread of the virus, schools across the country are experiencing surging rates of positive cases on campus. Policies for social distancing, reduction of crowds, and other safety measures, along with frequent testing of all students and staff, were common safeguards put in place for schools choosing to return for in-person instruction. Administrators of some schools have even threatened “swift and severe” disciplinary action to punish students who do not adhere to safety guidelines with the hope of keeping the infection at bay.
However, Julia Marcus, epidemiologist, and professor at Harvard Medical School, argues that these strict actions are not in the best interest of the school nor their students. She presents research showing that blaming and shaming people for their actions is not productive in a public health emergency like this. “We tend to focus on things that are fun as being particularly risky,” she says in an interview with NPR. “As if fun itself transmits the virus. And it doesn’t.” The issue is not the fact that students are socializing but rather that they are struggling to adapt their previous ways of forming social connections to the new circumstances. Instead of blaming students for spreading the virus, Marcus writes that “administrators need to adopt a compassionate and realistic approach that supports students in staying socially connected and mentally healthy—not just free of coronavirus infection.” At the same time, students need to be mature and conscientious as they navigate college during a public health emergency. Keeping the spread of coronavirus down on college campuses is the responsibility of both the administration and their students.
In an article by CBS58, editor in chief for the “Science” family of academic journals Holden Thorp explains the struggles many universities face balancing bringing students back and keeping campuses safe. “You’ve got so many constituencies that have so many different views […] The administrators are trying to bridge a divide that really can’t be bridged, between what the campus wants and what outside forces want.” Outside forces, like students and the community, want to be back on campus, but fears of continued spread of the virus put pressure on the schools to return to virtual learning only.
Just as the general population needed to make significant lifestyle changes in the wake of COVID-19, college students also must be willing to change their actions if they want to stay on campus. Young adults must remember to take precautions such as wearing a mask, social distancing when possible, washing or sanitizing hands, and following other guidelines put in place by state, local, and university leaders. In addition, college administrators must remain empathetic towards their students, who are missing out on experiences crucial to their development, and refrain from rashly penalizing them for attempts to maintain a semblance of normalcy amidst the unusual situation.
Until the number of new cases dramatically subsides in the U.S., we must all work together to prevent the spread of COVID-19 while still engaging with others in a meaningful way. Unfortunately, this way of life is not likely to leave anytime soon.
First Year Lily Vining is a Contributing Writer. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.