Although President Jim Ryan's effort in reopening Grounds is based on unfeigned intentions, I still have significant concerns about its effectiveness. I believe that he will best ensure the safety, security, health and well-being of the student body, faculty and staff if he moves all classes virtually for the fall semester.
Local government officials, including Charlottesville Mayor Nikuyah Walker, have publicly challenged Ryan’s decision to reopen Grounds. A July article from The Daily Progress reported that Mayor Walker stated, with conviction, that Ryan’s decision is "a recipe for disaster." Moreover, an open letter from a coalition of Charlottesville teachers also states the anticipated return of U.Va. students will set Charlottesville at “particular risk for a rapid community spread of COVID." In the first 13 days of July, the Thomas Jefferson Health District, which includes Albemarle County, saw “28 new cases, putting the month on pace to surpass June's 380 cases." These reports alone are disconcerting. As of Thursday, there are 2,336 positive COVID-19 cases in the TJHD, and 58 cases among University students, faculty and staff.
Although the city of Charlottesville has no jurisdiction in the administrative affairs of the University, our public officials' concerns are pretty compelling. It’s unsure whether the University administration will ensure the safety and well-being of its students, when many local government officials express hesitancy in supporting the ‘Return to Grounds’ plan.
It is unclear whether the ‘Return to Grounds’ plan addresses the frequent occurrence of asymptomatic carriers. Public health specialists from the New England Journal of Medicine have elicited that asymptomatic carriers pose a considerable challenge to virus containment. This study examined the viral dynamics of COVID-19 in nursing facilities with comprehensive sanitation measures. These same public health specialists conclude that asymptomatic carriers may pose a significant barrier to symptom based screening, stating that “Symptom-based screening alone failed to detect a high proportion of infectious cases and was not enough to control transmission in this setting”.
While some may argue that this data is irrelevant being that hospitals are places with substantially higher incidence rates of COVID-19 cases, epidemiologists from the CDC say otherwise. By discovering that asymptomatic and presymptomatic carriers, at minimal, may pose a considerable risk factor for the transmission of COVID-19 in any public setting, they state that “asymptomatic transmission enhances the need to scale up the capacity for widespread testing,” providing solutions such as “thorough contact tracing to detect asymptomatic infections, interrupt undetected transmission chains, and further bend the curve downward.” Epidemiology literature from public health journals and federal agencies such as the CDC would clearly highlight limitations to President Ryan’s measure for symptom testing as asymptomatic carriers pose a substantial challenge to containing the dissemination of COVID-19.
Another pressing concern is whether Ryan’s plan is testable or not. To diminish the spread of COVID- 9, the American College Health Association suggests policy measures similar to the University’s ‘Return to Grounds’ plan such as "hand hygiene, physical distancing, proper cough/sneeze etiquette, frequent disinfection of common and high traffic areas, symptom assessment and temperature checks." These suggestions serve as a framework for the health guidelines of many universities in the U.S. However, there's an obvious incongruence to this guideline – whether students will listen to it.
These guidelines appear inadequate as many universities that have adopted the same health measures still cannot properly contain the spread of COVID-19, regardless of the severity of penalization. For example, healthcare administrators in the UNC-Chapel Hill reported a substantial 2.8 percent to 13.6 percent COVID-19 positivity rise during the first week of classes. This reporting alone was compelling enough for UNC-Chapel Hill to move all classes virtually.
However, UNC-Chapel Hill is not the only academic institution that abides by its decision to move classes online. Other universities such as Brown University and the University of Maryland have delayed in-person classes by at least three weeks to two months. Furthermore, universities such as George Washington University, Catholic University of America, Georgetown University, Princeton University and American University were even more conclusive, moving, at minimum, all undergraduate classes online indefinitely throughout the fall semester.
Ultimately, Ryan’s ‘Return to Grounds’ plan will perhaps ensue a vast array of risks, the most pernicious of which is a potentially higher transmission rate of COVID-19. Therefore, the ‘Return to Grounds’ plan cannot pragmatically ensure the health of the U.Va. community. Many universities with similar plans and initiatives have proven to be woefully unprepared for containing the dissemination of COVID-19.
Ian Adoremos is a third-year in the College of Arts and Sciences.
The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Cavalier Daily. Columns represent the views of the authors alone.