I want to begin by saying that there is nothing I want more than for Hopkins to open up this fall so that I can experience the senior year that I have been looking forward to for the last three years. Regardless of this, based on the current circumstances, if Hopkins continues with their current plan of opening for a hybrid semester, I am afraid that a major coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak on campus is inevitable.
One of my primary concerns is that we are about four weeks from the first day of classes, and Hopkins still has no plan to quarantine students arriving from high-risk states. I am currently working as a contact tracer for the state of New York, and I am very familiar with the state’s new policy requiring anyone entering the state from a high-risk area to quarantine. Evidence suggests that these rules have contributed to New York’s maintaining such low COVID-19 numbers over the past two months.
I recently checked the numbers for Miami-Dade County in South Florida, where over 0.74 percent of the population has tested positive for COVID-19 over the last week alone. We know that these numbers reflect only confirmed cases and could be significantly higher when accounting for untested, asymptomatic carriers and the lack of testing available in many communities, as the New York Times describes. With numbers that high, how can we allow our students from areas with high incidence rates to return to campus and interact with our community without any quarantine or comprehensive testing program?
If no action is taken on this front, there will surely be a COVID-19 outbreak within the first two weeks of the semester, as someone from Miami or another high-risk area will return to campus with the virus. We are currently seeing in real time how quickly an outbreak can spread through the example of the Miami Marlins baseball team. Over the course of just four days, more than half the team’s players tested positive despite Major League Baseball’s strict health protocols. Why risk a similar outbreak among our students?
As a community, if we reopen we are assuming that students will take COVID-19 and social distancing seriously. While many students do and will take it seriously, the whole plan can fail if a few students throw a party or go out. Let’s face it: Students need social interaction, and if most or all of our classes are online, and students are isolated in single dorm rooms, they will certainly want as much human interaction as possible when not in class, and it will be impossible for the campus to monitor every student’s actions all the time.
Because of COVID-19 concerns, Hopkins students will spend a lot of time outside around campus. Quads will be full, which may make social distancing a challenge. The recent spike in cases that has hit most of the United States over the past few months has been in part due to a significant increase of cases in younger people. While some of them may be working in jobs that are higher-risk, I believe that this is mainly due to younger people not taking the virus as seriously as they should. This can be detrimental not only to the student body but could also lead to an outbreak in our local Baltimore community.
Another important thing to consider is that Baltimore’s COVID-19 numbers have significantly risen over the past few weeks. According to the Harvard Global Health Institute Heat Map, as of August 2, Baltimore has had 28.7 new cases of COVID-19 daily per 100,000 people over the last seven days. Any number above 25 places a county in the red zone; the red zone means that COVID-19 in that area is at a tipping point and the Harvard Global Health Institute deems a stay-at-home order to be necessary.
How can Hopkins safely open when the recommendation is for Baltimore to institute stay-at-home orders? Even if students do not independently bring COVID-19 to campus, they could still contract it in the city and bring an outbreak to campus. There is no way to keep students in a bubble.
Another important factor to consider is the need for students to have in-person learning. Fortunately, many Hopkins students have the resources needed for online remote learning (computer and internet), and while not the same nor ideal, these students can still benefit from a Hopkins education while learning online. For those students who do not have internet or computers at home, Hopkins should do everything possible to provide an equitable and stable environment for learning, including providing equipment and housing on campus as needed.
Beyond that, Hopkins should consider using their large campus and many lecture halls to help make more space available for Baltimore public school students for whom online learning will be much more of a challenge.
As a student studying Public Health and someone who has been following this pandemic intensely over the past few months, I feel compelled to share my beliefs with the Hopkins community so that we can follow the lead of other universities like George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and retract our original plans to open in a hybrid format this fall. I think that by going completely virtual, we would not only be protecting the Hopkins community, but we would also be helping the United States flatten the curve so we can begin to safely return to normal again.
As the leading public health institution in the country and maybe the world, it saddens me that the University is not looking at these alarming points when considering reopening or at least being transparent with the students about these issues. As a leader in public health, Hopkins needs to lead by example and focus on a plan that puts health first, and hopefully other universities will follow suit. I strongly encourage the Hopkins reopening committee and the administration to take conscious steps toward going 100 percent virtual this fall in order to best protect students, employees and our local Baltimore community.
Jeremy Costin is a rising senior from White Plains, New York studying Public Health and Economics. He is working this summer as a contact tracer for the state of New York.