The United States is entering a new phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, with cases surging across the country. The seven-day moving average of new cases is at its third peak since the beginning of the pandemic. More than 83,000 new cases were added Friday and Saturday, marking the two highest numbers of new cases added in a single day.
Experts warn that daily cases could soon be at six digits with fall holidays approaching and the weather getting colder, forcing people to be indoors.
COVID-19 cases are also increasing in Maryland but have yet to hit the record seven-day moving average of 1,090 cases set in early May.
Balancing safe socialization practices with academic work and mental health have presented challenges for students living off-campus in Baltimore.
For Natalie Wu, a first-year student at the School of Advanced International Studies, staying safe from COVID-19 means adhering to guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This includes wearing a mask and staying at least six feet apart from others.
She noted, however, that these guidelines can be difficult to maintain in public spaces, such as grocery stores.
“I haven’t been 100 percent successful because of the way certain places I frequent are laid out,” she said. “At grocery stores like Eddie’s Market, because of how small it is and how the aisles and stands are configured, it can be hard to stay six feet away from somebody else, especially when it gets busy. That’s a lot closer than I would like to be.”
Junior Sylvana Schaffer stated she has been limiting the number of people she sees.
“Since coming back to campus, I’ve been trying to limit my circle and see friends outside rather than inside as much as possible,” she said. “The only other person I see regularly is my boyfriend. Other than that, I might see a couple of close friends once a week or so. I’m also guilty of going out to eat a lot, but I always eat outside or take it back to my apartment.”
Over the past few months, Baltimore’s warm weather has helped students socialize with others outside.
Junior Riya Jain has been spending time outside to maintain safe social practices.
“In the summer, I did a lot of hikes with my family. Now it’s a lot of eating outdoors. The outdoor [Baltimore Museum of Art] sculpture garden was a nice way to do something different but still be social-distancing friendly,” she said.
Other students have been taking walks around the campus or going on runs on the Stony Run Trail.
In an email to The News-Letter, Assistant Vice President of External Relations for the Office of Communications Karen Lancaster stated that the University believes students in off-campus housing have been generally following the University guidelines on safety practices.
According to Lancaster, there have been 32 reports of alleged noncompliance with University guidelines to the anonymous hotline since the beginning of the semester.
“Referrals [to the hotline] were more frequent early in the semester, signaling that educational interventions seem to be having their intended effect,” she wrote. “We continually remind our university community of the importance of adhering to the COVID guidelines, and are heartened to see that they are being taken seriously.”
Cold weather, however, brings more complications to students, since spending time outside is not as feasible.
Jain worries that this might affect students’ social distancing practices.
“People will have to stay indoors. Spending a lot of time indoors and limiting the number of people you see because you have to [socialize] indoors will be rough. I don’t know if there are any solutions to it, but it’s just something people have to keep in mind,” she said. “Encouraging outdoor spaces heated by heat lamps to exist to deal with the pandemic during the winter would be helpful.”
Schaffer believes that the cold weather may harm students’ mental health.
“There are still ways to be relatively safe indoors, like sticking to a small and trustworthy group and having everyone keep their masks on, which people will increasingly turn to as we become forced to stay inside,” she said. “Staying indoors without seeing people during the cold and dark winter months would likely be pretty bad from a mental and emotional health perspective.”
Over the past few months, students’ socialization behaviors have varied greatly. As a result, it is unclear if all off-campus students will adhere to guidelines for safe socialization during the winter.
Jain feels lucky to have a friend group who has been following CDC guidelines.
“My friends at least have been taking it very seriously,” she said. “They want to know who people are hanging out with before they even consider inviting them over to their apartments. But of course I hear cases of people going out to gatherings of more than 10 or 15 people; there’s a lot of variability.”
Wu thinks many students have not been adhering to the guidelines.
“A few weeks ago I saw six to eight undergraduate students who were clearly intoxicated at UniMini. They were standing really close to each other and also getting very close to other patrons in the store,” she said. “Some of them were wearing masks, but some weren’t, or they wore them incorrectly because they were drunk and not thinking about other people or aware of others.”
Therefore, Wu argued that students would not be able to stay safe during a hybrid spring semester.
Senior Ava Kelley, however, observes that Hopkins students who are in Baltimore this fall have exercised far more caution than students at other universities.
“When I look around other campuses and what some of my high school peers are doing, it’s night and day compared to what I’ve seen at Hopkins,“ she said. “Relative to other schools, we are doing an amazing job.”
Planning for the spring
As Hopkins grapples with the ongoing pandemic, students have been frustrated with the University’s communication.
Notably, in announcing plans for the fall semester, the University initially promised to release the final plan by mid-July. However, plans of the online-only semester were announced in early August, forcing many students to scramble to make adjustments to their fall plans. In addition, many students experienced delays and uncertainty with Financial Aid.
Junior Mary Sulavik reported frustration with the University’s slow communication.
“I wish there were more updates about what will happen in the spring,” she said. “There is a fine line because of the uncertainties. When you are treading that line, more information is always better.”
The University has announced that it will have a plan for the spring semester by Thanksgiving.
Many students also hope that Hopkins will expand testing for students.
The University launched an epidemiological surveillance study in September that regularly tests 100 students residing off-campus. Students experiencing COVID-19 symptoms can also get tested through the Hopkins COVID-19 Call Center (JHCCC). However, Hopkins does not provide asymptomatic testing.
Kelley argued that Hopkins should have provided testing for all students in off-campus housing from the beginning of the semester.
“They pretended as though people in off-campus housing didn’t return even though by the time they announced [fall plans], we already signed leases,” she said. “Hopkins is the leader on COVID response. It was kind of interesting that the undergraduate population is not being so closely monitored.”
JHCCC has administered 8,299 total tests since the beginning of the semester to 3,262 individuals. Of the tests, there were 128 positive results. These data, however, do not fully represent the spread of COVID-19 among students currently living in Baltimore.
Schaffer hoped that contract tracing efforts would provide more details.
“While I understand the potential consequences of making public where cases are located, I do think it would be helpful to at least narrow it down somewhat,” she said.
Others, however, expressed some reservations about how contact tracing efforts could violate students’ privacy.
Senior Nicola Sumi Kim was tested through JHCCC earlier in the summer. She shared in an email to The News-Letter that Hopkins contacted her advisors regarding her testing information without her knowledge.
“When I first called [JHCCC] to get tested, I wasn’t informed that anyone else would be made aware,” she said. “Basic consent is necessary — the University has struggled with being transparent throughout all of their COVID-19 response, and open communication with students about things like contact tracing or spring semester plans is extremely important.”