How Many People Will Preventably Die or Get Ill if Universities Hold Classes in Person? – Part 2

Most universities plan to hold classes in person this fall despite the fact that the coronavirus is spiraling out of control in the US, unlike most other countries.  Unfortunately, our political leaders in the federal government and many state governments are not taking effective action to control the virus.  Indeed, many of their policies are likely to spread the disease even more.  Under these circumstances, it seems likely that universities holding classes in person this fall will cause preventable illness and death.

Part 1 describes foreseeable risks and some pushback by faculty around the country.

This part provides statistics about other causes of death in the US, demonstrating how covid-19 far exceeds almost all of them.  It also discusses biases that may lead to poor decision-making by university administrators, students, and faculty about the risks and benefits of holding classes in person.

Some Perspective

We may become numb as we watch the numbers of deaths grow every day.

According to the New York Times, there have been more than 140,000 deaths in the US from Covid-19 in about six months.  This number continues to grow at an alarming rate.  Lately, there have been more than 60,000 new confirmed cases per day and close to 1,000 additional deaths some days.

For some perspective, consider the following statistics.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, here are the top six causes of death in the US in 2017.

  • Heart disease: 647,457
  • Cancer: 599,108
  • Accidents (unintentional injuries): 169,936
  • Chronic lower respiratory diseases: 160,201
  • Stroke (cerebrovascular diseases): 146,383
  • Alzheimer’s disease: 121,404

In 2018, there were an estimated 36,560 deaths from automobile accidents.

In 2018, there were 16,214 murders and nonnegligent manslaughers the US, according to FBI statistics.

These figures are for entire years, compared with six months of the current pandemic.

As a result of the attacks on September 11, 2001, 2,997 people died.

Here are the number of American military deaths in our six most deadly wars:

  • American Civil War: 655,000 (est.)
  • World War II: 405,399
  • World War I: 116,516
  • Vietnam War: 58,209
  • Korean War: 36,574
  • Revolutionary War: 25,000

Note that these wars each lasted years, compared with only six months of deaths from Covid-19.

Faulty Thinking

I assume that university administrators are working overtime, sincerely trying to figure out the best way to deal with this crisis.  Their financial and institutional fears about not holding classes in person are understandable.  Perhaps if I participated in the these deliberations, I would share their perspectives about the wisdom of doing so.

I wonder if their assessments are colored by cognitive, motivational, and social biases leading to overly optimistic perspectives.  Are they so focused on measures to limit infection on campus that they don’t make realistic assumptions about student behavior off campus?

Do people who demand on-campus instruction have realistic expectations about what the experience will be like, both on campus and off?  It probably would be nothing like the intense social interaction they imagine — at least not if everyone complies with strict public health measures.  There will be great temptation to have the kind of interactions that could put a lot of people at serious risk.

Consider this news story:  “Virus’s Spread in Fraternity Houses Raises Concerns for Campuses Opening this Fall. … ‘There is not one event, or multiple events, that we can identify as being the repository of this,’ said Johnson, who is a senior.  ‘It just spread from people living in a house, or visiting others in a house to hang out, or even just running into someone at a grocery store. . . . It was truly community spread.’”

An extensive investigative report by the Washington Post shows that university health centers are woefully unprepared to deal with the virus.  Here are five takeaways from their investigation:

  1. Many college health services appear unprepared to handle a pandemic.
  2. Student health centers are like the Wild West of medical care.
  3. Risks increase for historically black colleges and universities.
  4. Some students can’t afford care at on-campus health centers.
  5. The pandemic has set off a financial crisis for student health care.

The article states:

Students are planning to descend on campuses in a matter of weeks as many states are experiencing a surge of coronavirus cases, including an increasing number of young people who have tested positive.  Health experts have described colleges as cruise ships on land, ideal places for the novel coronavirus to spread quickly through shared dorm rooms, communal bathrooms and dining halls.

University leaders are publicly lobbying for federal protections from coronavirus-related lawsuits when they reopen, arguing that costly litigation would take away from already scarce resources needed to support students.

College health officials, meanwhile, are privately discussing insufficient stockpiles of personal protective equipment, inadequate access to coronavirus testing on campus and a short supply of rooms to quarantine students, according to interviews, emails and presentations reviewed by The Post.

Health professionals at historically black colleges and universities have said they are concerned about the risks to their students and faculty because of the disproportionate number of covid-19 diagnoses and deaths among black people.

These decisions not only affect the university communities – they affect everyone.  Infections from students, faculty, and staff ripple out to their communities and everyone who comes in contact with them.  People in the US can’t travel to many other countries without being quarantined.  Similarly, people in some American states can’t travel to other states without being quarantined.  People in many states may have to live with increasingly strict limitations on their behavior.  Continued spread of the virus aggravates our intense political and social conflict.

Since students probably wouldn’t have the experiences on campus they imagine, here’s a real opportunity to do some problem-solving thinking to safely replicate online the campus social interactions as much as possible.  And it provides the potential side effect of having students focus more on good communication, less tainted by binge drinking and unsafe sex.  Obviously, this wouldn’t be an ideal substitute.  But we’re in a crisis with only more or less bad options.

For a more thorough analysis of the situation, see Peter H. Huang & Debra S. Austin, Unsafe at Any Campus:  Don’t Let Colleges Become the Next Cruise Ships, Nursing Homes, and Food Processing Plants.

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