While the return to Grounds is, for many students, a long-awaited escape from home and a hopeful promise that things will soon return to normal, the reality is less exciting for those who are confronted with personal health challenges.
COVID-19 is known to generally have a greater impact on those who already have underlying health conditions or who have undergone treatments that weakened their immune system. These immunocompromised individuals are at greater risk of becoming severely ill from the disease. As a result, it becomes even more important for them to prevent infection by entirely avoiding exposure to the virus through social distancing.
For immunocompromised students, returning to Grounds means introducing themselves to a host of risks. However, many are still choosing to return.
Second-year Engineering student Caroline Davis wants to be able to continue her college experience on Grounds so she is choosing to return instead of living at home. In addition to University-mandated protective measures, she will be prioritizing a higher restriction of social distancing for herself to minimize the risks. While she had always needed to be vigilant about her health even before COVID-19, the current situation has opened up new perspectives for her.
“There have been periods of anxiety and panic in my household about how best to keep me safe,” Davis said. “There have been periods of anger towards people who remain ignorant and risk the lives of people who have weakened immune systems. Overall, I would not necessarily say my experience has been any different than other people's experience, but I definitely think that COVID has highlighted new concerns that were previously hidden from me and I will carry these perspectives for the rest of my life.”
However, concerns still remain about whether the student population will be able to comply with the University’s regulations and avoid being sent home early.
“I desperately want to be hopeful,” Davis said. “But we are asking the U.Va. population to commit to guidelines that our country struggles with, and whether or not we are able to exhibit model behaviors is definitely up in the air.”
Fourth-year College student Layne Berry has personally experienced what it’s like to live in a hospital for a long time, being woken up every four hours for vitals checks and constantly traveling in the company of an IV pole. Now a year out of chemotherapy, Berry is not yet sure to what extent her immune system has been impacted due to the uncertainty surrounding her treatment plan, but experiencing heart and lung disease within the next decade is a common side effect.
“I see people really struggling to adjust to the socially distanced lifestyle, and while I can sympathize with the mental health toll of doing this for the first time, having been living a much worse version of the quarantined life less than two years ago, I really can’t relate at all,” Berry said. “We are still able to do most things, just with a mask on and a little extra distance. On a scale from hospital life to normal life, socially distanced life is barely an inconvenience.”
Berry has been living in Charlottesville since the University shifted to online learning in the spring because her hometown was in the middle of a major outbreak. She is planning to continue staying in Charlottesville for the school year. Every time she leaves the house, she wears a mask. She goes shopping once a month at most, only at Harris Teeter and occasionally CVS or Lowe’s for necessities.
According to Berry, Charlottesville residents were careful enough with social distancing practices throughout the summer to provide relative herd immunity, but she’s worried that things will change once students return.
“My last grocery trip, the store was two to three times as crowded as it has been with students returning,” Berry said. “I fear that, as Midsummers showed us, the precautions full-time Charlottesville residents have been taking are not being mirrored by incoming students.”
As someone who has been through a life-threatening experience, Berry particularly emphasized the importance of personal experience in making rational decisions regarding safety. Those who have not been on the verge of death are not able to fully understand the severity of the situation and appropriately weigh the risks, she says. According to Berry, this lack of trauma is a privilege, but that privilege also imposes blind spots.
“The threat of complications from COVID is real, and it is awful, in a way most people lack the experience to fully realize,” Berry said. “When death is abstract, masks and six feet of distance feel like an imposition.”
This fall, second-year College student Olivia Shepard was supposed to be living in a residential college, but she didn’t like the idea of having to stay in her dorm the majority of the time without being able to invite her friends over or visit their dorms. While she wanted to return to work, the library she worked at isn’t open this semester. The unpredictability of the situation and concerns about the health of her older family members contributed to her decision to stay at home.
Shepard is living with two people over the age of 75 who are more vulnerable to the virus, making it much more dangerous if the virus is brought home. According to the Centers for Disease Control, compared to 18 to 29 year olds, those above the age of 75 are between 8 to 13 times more likely to be hospitalized and have a 220 to 630 times higher risk of death due to the disease.
“For some other families who don't have people living in their house that are at high risk for dying from the virus, bringing the virus may not be as stressful,” Shepard said. “For my family and myself, bringing the virus home could and probably would be a life or death situation.”
In addition to taking extra precautions, such as wiping down everything brought into the house from outside, wearing masks outside at all times and only going to places with few people, she is also choosing to stay home this semester to avoid bringing the virus back.
However, Shepard is planning to stay connected with the University community in many ways by keeping in touch with friends, attending virtual residential college events and planning virtual events with the Arts & Enrichment committee of UPC. She also plans to visit at least once this semester, with social distancing measures in place.
“Wearing a mask, putting on hand sanitizer and standing six feet away from your friends when talking to them are all minor inconveniences that are saving people's lives,” Shepard said.
While Davis, Berry and Shepard all hope that things will progress well on Grounds this fall, they are all well aware that reality may have different plans. During Midsummers, many students continued partying in large numbers, disregarding federal, state and University guidelines. The University of Notre Dame and Michigan State University have already canceled in-person instruction after sudden COVID-19 outbreaks, among several other colleges — most recently including James Madison University in Virginia. Ultimately, a successful semester would have to involve students complying fully with all the social distancing guidelines in place.
“At the end of the day, you can get frustrated and hopeless when you see the lack of respect for the community, but all you can do is your best and communicate with others to ensure that they do their best,” Davis said. “I think those who are not following social distancing practices are ignorant to the severity of COVID, and to have that lack of understanding highlights their privilege.”