As an increasing number of colleges across the country announce their transition to an online-only semester, many students are planning to recreate the college experience off campus in apartments and houses.
While it is certainly understandable to feel sick of your hometown or whoever you may be quarantining with, there are serious risks that accompany the decision to create a “quarantine crew” in your college town.
As Pitzer’s Student Senate President, I have been actively participating in our COVID-19 Task Force meetings, and researching local health care and outbreak trends. As students consider their living arrangements for the upcoming semester, I am writing to share important information you may not have that I hope will help guide your decision. I encourage you to share and discuss this information with loved ones as you consider your choices.
Based on recent conversations with peers, I believe many students are making plans to return to the Claremont area and live independently in apartments, including at College Park.
While some students are unable to live and learn safely at home, and thus need to rely on off-campus housing, others are motivated by the understandable desire to reconnect with peers and to live a more “normal” life. It is important for everyone to consider the risks of relocating to Claremont — specifically, the risks of relocating with the intent of living with, or close to, friends. I believe there are several risks that students and their families may be either unaware of, or significantly underestimating.
The gist of it:
There will be no system of contact tracing. Tests are hard to get. Test results are heavily delayed. Peoples’ failure to accurately grasp exponential growth increases their confidence in risky behaviors. There is already an outbreak in Claremont; the surge is mostly caused by young people, and local hospitals are overwhelmed.
The college will not perform contact tracing.
Traditional contact tracing is a labor-intensive process of interviews and detective work. Pitzer will not have the staff, the funding, nor the expertise to perform this type of tracing this fall.
Additionally, traditional contact tracing is most effective when the prevalence of infection is low and where testing is rapid and widely available — conditions that are not currently the case in California.
There is no contact tracing in College Park or other off-campus housing arrangements. Students would be reliant on LA County’s Department of Public Health for contact tracing, which relies on self-reported information, and only begins once an individual has tested positive.
While students may find ways to keep track of who they interact with, students who are asymptomatic may fail to get tested in the first place, and the time delay makes information recall less accurate. These information asymmetries can contribute to dangerous delays in self-isolation, potentially exposing a large number of individuals and households during the delay.
Students will not be tested, and will likely have difficulty in both accessing testing and receiving timely results.
As LA County sees a surge in cases and has limited testing capacity, public health officials are restricting who can get tested, prioritizing those who know they have been directly exposed, work in a high-risk environment or are exhibiting symptoms. Due to the backlog of testing, drive-through test sites warn patients that their results will take between six to 10 days.
Considering that there will not be a contact tracing system in place for students, asymptomatic carriers will likely not know (or be able) to get tested, furthering the spread. According to the LA Times, as of July 8, “1 in 140 people in LA County are unknowingly infected with the virus.”
Research is demonstrating that the majority of COVID-19 transmission is attributable to people who are not exhibiting symptoms. Studies like this recent one are increasingly demonstrating the role of “silent transmitters” in contributing to the spread of COVID-19. Another article describes the dangers of asymptomatic transmission, indicating that “you may be most infectious before you have any idea that you have COVID-19.”
Large campuses with their own medical centers and hospitals that had planned to reopen are now seriously reconsidering the safety of doing so (such as UC San Diego), or have already reversed their decisions (such as the University of Southern California). The recent outbreak at UC Berkeley (in which a single fraternity party led to 47 COVID-19 cases) caused university administrators to release a statement that they would be reconsidering opening.
Young people, especially in the U.S., have not demonstrated an accurate understanding of the exponential nature of the “limited” contacts they plan.
Research shows that people have difficulty understanding exponential growth and erroneously interpret it in linear terms instead. Making matters worse, the study explained that people are overly confident in their ability to predict change. Those who have the least knowledge about exponential growth (and consistently apply linear thinking) demonstrate the most confidence in their erroneous forecasts. Other studies on exponential growth bias, including this study, revealed that individuals who fail to grasp exponential growth were also “more likely to reveal markedly reduced compliance with the WHO-recommended safety measures, find general violations of safety protocols less alarming, and show greater faith in their government’s actions.”
Many students who I have spoken to plan on living in units of two to eight people and self-report that they intend to socialize with “pods” of ~20 peers this fall. Mathematical epidemiologist Adam Kucharski explained, “Early in outbreak, each COVID-19 case infects ~2.5 others on average. There’s ~5 days between one infection and next, so we’d expect one case to lead to 2.56 = 244 more cases in a month. If we can halve transmission, so each infects 1.25 others instead, we’d expect 4 more cases.” Considering that Pitzer usually has approximately 160 students each semester living off-campus, if these students are interacting with each other, an outbreak would take less than a month to reach all 160 students.
Young people have clearly demonstrated that they will prioritize socialization over safety throughout the pandemic. Laurence Steinberg, a psychology professor at Temple University explains that adolescent impulse control and responses to social rewards are not as strong as they are in older individuals. Steinberg explains that while young people might recognize that social distancing is important, their social impulses can be more powerful. New case data from California in late June demonstrated that “nearly half of new diagnoses are in individuals younger than 35.”
Cases in Claremont are already on the rise.
As of July 20, Claremont had 206 confirmed COVID-19 cases. A July 11 article highlighted the surge in cases in Claremont, with a 27 percent increase from the week prior. This growth comes following the July 2 article in which an 18.5 percent increase in cases from the prior week was reported. July 11 marked the fourth consecutive day of over 50 COVID-19 deaths in LA County. Steven Felschundneff reported for the Claremont Courier that “almost 50 percent of new cases are occurring in younger people, most significantly those between the ages of 18 and 40” and “of the people currently hospitalized with COVID-19, about 26 percent are between 18 and 40 years of age, up from 11 percent a month ago.” Director of Public Health Barbara Ferrer explained that 7 percent of COVID-19 deaths in LA County had no pre-existing health conditions. Countywide, total deaths are increasing.
Local hospitals and medical centers are at or near full capacity and short staffed. Students who become ill will most likely have to care for themselves while sheltering in place.
Local hospitals have extremely limited capacity and staffing. Pomona Valley Hospital Medical Center had already activated its surge plan by July 2, which raised capacity to 66 beds, and could potentially expand to 83 beds. As of the July 2 press release, approximately 16 beds remained open. This was prior to the July 4 surge in cases. As of a July 13 COVID-19 Task Force Meeting, we are hearing that PVHMC beds are at capacity. As of July 13, the hospital has decided to postpone surgeries in response to the “skyrocketing number of COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations.”
Local health care providers and hospitals will be quickly overrun if there is a significant outbreak in the Claremont area. Students and their families should anticipate serious shortages of health care facilities, equipment, pharmaceuticals and personnel. It is important to realize that students who become ill will, by default, need to provide self-care at home, and must plan accordingly. While the disease appears to be less fatal or severe in young people, there’s still much we don’t know about the long-term effects of the virus.
There is emerging evidence that infection may result in permanent scarring of the lungs or trigger diabetes. And of course, students will inevitably come into contact with community or family members who are not young or who have underlying medical conditions that may make them more vulnerable. Dr. Anthony Fauci recently said,“To think young people have no deleterious consequences is not true. We’re seeing more and more complications in young people.”
For students who plan to visit home, or interact with community members, it is important to consider that asymptomatic transmission poses a very real threat to the lives of both those close to you and community members you interact with.
The risks of moving to Claremont are too high. If you can stay home, do it.
I understand that not everyone can stay home. If you’re thinking about moving somewhere, pay attention to data on local outbreaks in Claremont and LA County. Make sure that you take social distancing seriously, as a passive approach to containing the spread can kill others. Try to educate yourself on outbreak dynamics — watch a three-minute video of an Oxford mathematician explaining the exponential growth of COVID-19. If you’re living with others, or plan to interact with others, make sure to set clear boundaries and guidelines for your “bubble.”
And most importantly, if you have the means to stay home and social distance, DO IT. Anyone wanting the possibility of quasi-normal spring semester has to prioritize safety and social distancing now, and through the fall.
Becca Zimmerman PZ ’21 is a political studies and economics major from New Jersey, and is the president of Pitzer’s Student Senate. When she isn’t in task force meetings, Becca’s quarantine pastimes have included protesting racism and demanding reforms at her high school, building crooked furniture and taking online courses.
A version of this piece originally appeared on Medium.