As February began, thousands of students returned to Bloomington for the hybrid in-person and online spring semester. Many students are hoping this semester will look more normal than the fall. But that shouldn’t be the case.
The Indiana State Department of Health reported a sustained decline of COVID-19 case numbers, hospitalizations and deaths in Indiana, which is an encouraging turn of events. The return of students to campuses across the state threatens this trend and poses a heightened risk of localized outbreaks and infection hotspots, including in Bloomington.
[Related: See all of our coronavirus coverage here]
To combat this frightening possibility as we return to classes, IU students must continue to practice COVID-19 safe behavior or they risk creating another dangerous outbreak. Safe behavior includes double masking, which was recently recommended by the Monroe County Health Department, staying socially distant from people outside of your home and limiting time spent in public spaces.
Even though most of this behavior is already encouraged on college campuses, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention observed a rapid rise in coronavirus cases within two weeks of colleges opening in the fall.
Monroe County reported a spike in coronavirus cases soon after classes began last semester. The county reported 16 cases Aug. 25, 2020, the day after classes started, according to the New York Times. Shortly after the move-in period, the county saw a steady increase with cases peaking at 238 on Sept. 11, 2020 and falling to 114 the next day.
The rise of case numbers is sometimes attributed to an increase in testing, but it is possible for testing to rapidly increase without seeing more coronavirus spread. If students had remained distanced and complied with all CDC and university guidelines, we might have avoided a local outbreak.
This phenomenon of rising cases as students returned occurred at universities across the country, not just at IU.
An October, 2020 CDC study of COVID-19 clusters on college campuses found student gatherings both on and off campus contributed to rapid case growth in student populations after a university’s campus had opened.
“This suggests the need for robust and enhanced implementation of mitigation efforts and the need for additional mitigation measures specific to this setting,” according to the study.
Mitigation measures include ensuring students are compliant with mask policies in public spaces, limiting the use of shared study spaces and cracking down on large gatherings.
The presence of the new B.1.1.7 variant of COVID-19 in the United States also poses a risk to students. A December, 2020 research letter from the CDC said “rapid epidemic growth” of the variant in the United Kingdom suggested a higher level of transmission, leading to the possibility of increased hospitalizations and deaths as cases climbed. This variant is already present in Indiana, as the CDC confirmed nine known cases in the state already, as of Feb. 8.
The prevention of COVID-19 spread is not just a numbers game, but a game of common sense. Start with evaluating your current actions and risk for contracting COVID-19, and then work on a plan to minimize your chances of spreading the virus to other people.
College towns have started to brace for a surge in cases. In Ann Arbor, Michigan, Washtenaw County issued a two week stay-in-place order for all University of Michigan students living on or near campus to combat the rapid spread of COVID-19 through its winter term.
Measures such as masks, hybrid learning and social distancing work, but we have to move beyond that conversation. Now, we must stick vigilantly to the guidelines outlined, such as avoiding large gatherings, by our local and national public health offices.
We’ve almost made it a year into the pandemic. Sadly, more than 450,000 Americans haven’t. It’s time to commit to the responsibility we have as students to limit the spread and save lives.
Otherwise, we’re looking at dark days in the weeks ahead.
Chris Sciortino (he/him) is a sophomore studying theatre and political science. He's an NPR and musical theater fanatic, and he is also a proud member of the Singing Hoosiers.