The university leadership is stuck in a holding pattern—waiting things out before they potentially get better, worse, or (God forbid) ugly. While COVID-19 cases in the city gradually climb, the situation on campus could mimic that or take on its own character. Our campus is isolated but still porous; the train station, bus lines and roadways are the major ways in and could deliver COVID-19 faster than an Amazon Prime package.
An in-person visit to class in the fall could lead to an in-person visit to the hospital later despite class delays until Oct. 1. We need a complete shift to online classes for the entire semester. Of course, this will intensify the digital divide, harming poor and rural students disproportionately more. But, it will save lives.
At this point in the pandemic, hosting classes in-person would mean greater risk. This is not a game of chance anymore, it is a game of time and certainty now. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explains, “the more closely you interact with others and the longer that interaction, the higher the risk of COVID-19 spread.” There is no place more cramped on campus than inside dormitories and classrooms. The CDC goes on to say, “indoor spaces are more risky than outdoor spaces where it might be harder to keep people apart and there’s less ventilation.” So, if the CDC says that staying confined to indoor public spaces is a bad idea, then I think we ought to listen.
Nothing has changed since March 20, when students were kicked off of campus last semester. If anything, the situation has gotten much worse. According to the NC Department of Health and Human Services, Mecklenburg County has had 26,683 total confirmed cases since mid-March and 331 deaths as of Sept. 11. The county has seen an average of 103 daily new cases over the past two weeks. The state figures have reached 182,617 cases overall and 3,044 dead according to data from the New York Times.
I’m not trying to fear-monger; this is just an objective reality. We all saw what happened to Chapel Hill. According to the Daily Tar Heel, UNC-Chapel Hill had developed four “clusters” of COVID-19 on its campus last month, thanks in large part to off-campus parties. This was why after just one week of classes, the UNC-Chapel Hill leadership sent out a message to all of its undergraduate students shifting in-person classes to remote instruction effective Aug. 19. If you think that can’t happen here, then give it time.
In addition, the UNC-Chapel Hill CV-19 Dashboard reports that 1,101 students and 64 faculty have been infected at Chapel Hill since February. That translates to a 15 percent positive infection rate of all students who have received testing since July 1. Occupancy for campus housing has fallen from 91.2 percent on July 20 to just 12.9 percent on Sept. 11.
COVID-19 has already made its debut in our campus community this semester, too. According to the Charlotte Observer, our university has seen its first “cluster” of COVID-19 infections with 8 students living off-campus testing positive. A few days later, the UNC-Charlotte COVID-19 Dashboard recorded a total of 25 students and 52 employees testing positive for COVID-19 from July 1 to Sept. 6. The Niner Times reports 38 new cases since Sept. 7. Do you still think it can’t happen here?
Even still, the university is not defenseless. Some of the tools UNC-Charlotte has in its arsenal against COVID-19 are testing and contact tracing, but these methods are not flawless. Last month on a podcast for the Infectious Disease Society of America (IDSA), Anthony Fauci of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) said, “one of the things that is still not perfect is the time lag between when you do a test and when you get the result back.” Fauci also said, “if you have to wait several days [for the test], then it kind of obviates the underlying reason for doing the contact tracing.” A time lag of several days gives COVID-19 a chance to hop from the infected to the healthy. And, for those who are asymptomatic, the virus could have a field day.
Kudos to the university for mandating a mask policy and simplifying mail services to avoid the spread of COVID-19. But, I doubt that will be enough to stop an outbreak with 29,615 students recorded on UNC-Charlotte’s Fall 2019 university profile. The university should wait until a vaccine is developed and widely available. That might not be until spring or summer next year, but it will ensure the safety of the university community—if that really is a top priority.
All you can do is wash your hands, wear your mask and socially distance 6 feet apart from those around you according to CDC suggestions. Do your part. It won’t guarantee the prevention of a campus outbreak, but at least you can say that you weren’t part of the reason why everyone else got sick. Stay safe out there.