Will University re-Opening Be Done Safely To Avoid Covid-19 Outbreaks? Likely Not. // Patrick Levine Rose

Will we get large Covid-19 outbreaks by having college students return to campus? Answer: Most likely yes. 

Why? Students are not likely to limit contacts outside class this Fall upon  return to school. And the mitigation strategies that are needed likely will not be in place. [Source: Study by Univ of Penn/Swarthmore Profs.]

So Universities will likely collect the tuition, bring the students back to campus, cause the outbreak, declare emergency, send the students home — a planned failure (but a profitable one). Thoughts?

The study describes how plans to prevent Covid-19 cases spreading likely will fail, and we’ll get large outbreaks IF (1) students party in big groups, (2) students go to bars in groups, (3) students don’t wear face masks when in groups. 

The study authors suggest that it is possible to prevent a large outbreak of key mitigation strategies are in place. [1] Large classes (over 30) will have to go online. [2] Testing must occur. [3] Re-testing of Covid-19 positive tests. [4] Face mask use must be universal. [5] There must be contact tracing. [6] students must be quarantined On campus if exposed — not sent home.

Question: How many of these mitigation strategies will Michigan State or University of Michigan put  in place as students return to campus?

Question: Is there enough High quality & reliable testing capacity in place?

Question: are there an adequate number of contact tracers hired & ready to do their job on Day One? 

Question: How will University & cities nearby enforce face mask wearing — a lynchpin to preventing a Covid-19 outbreak?

But a chain is only as strong as the weakest link.

The weak link is what?: students will gather outside class & dorm. If the gatherings happen normally — such as at a dining hall, a large Covid-19 outbreak is VERY LIKELY. 

Question: Will Michigan State students eat in dorms? 

Question: Will Michigan State or the nearby City prevent large student gatherings at parties?

The study authors emphasize how the preventing of the spread of Covid-19 requires limits on student contacts (e.g. just contact with a roommate):

“But Peck and Gressman concluded that it will be extremely important for students to refrain from all contact with one another outside of academic and residential settings. (In a residential setting, the study assumed students will each have one close contact — their roommate.)” [That means no communal eating in large halls.]

“Even very small rates of contact in large group settings like dining halls or parties may be sufficient to sustain an outbreak on campus regardless of any other protective measures which have been put into place,” they wrote in the paper.”

“If students aren’t inclined to forgo optional social contact, that’s the kind of thing that can overwhelm any kind of mitigation strategies,” Gressman said. “There’s a lot of talk about what’s going to go on in the classroom and are they going to put up barriers and things like that. That stuff is really important, but one of the takeaways should be, ‘It’s time to move the conversation forward.’ Because it doesn’t matter what you do in the classroom if you don’t manage all those other aspects as well.”

“College administrations, in the many fall reopening plans they’ve released, have been wary to touch on social contact between students and how — or whether — it will be prevented. Punitive measures will likely be unpopular with students.”


– Patrick Levine Rose

12 thoughts on “Will University re-Opening Be Done Safely To Avoid Covid-19 Outbreaks? Likely Not. // Patrick Levine Rose”

    • It is impossible to open a university safely during a pandemic unless everyone stays home to teach, learn, and administer the education. That is why they call it a pandemic.

      • Ruth:

        I do not understand your comment. [A.] Are you saying the University should not re-open since you think it cannot do so safely in a Pandemic? Or do you think the University should re-open despite not being able to do so safely?

        [B.] Do you disagree with the Chronicle of Higher Education Study finding mitigation strategies they list will greatly reduce spread of Covid-19 to manageable levels, controlling the Pandemic? That finding flatly contradicts your comment.

        If you do disagree, why will those mitigation strategies fail? What can the City and University do to help adopt and enforce those mitigation strategies so that they succeed?

        [The Study recommended simple mitigation strategies: 1. Classes less than 30 students or Online, 2. Fever Checks/Symptom evaluation before Class, 3. Testing/Re-testing of Positive Results, 4. Quarantine, 5. Contact Tracing, 6. Universal Face Mask Wearing, 7. Social Distancing. 8. Limits on Student Social Contacts Outside Classroom, 9. Measures to Insure Compliance, including some Enforcement, 10. Signed Agreement by all University Community Members to Follow These Rules.]

        [C.] Is the University adopting those mitigation strategies? Is the City advocating the University to adopt them (to protect City residents)?

        Thanks, in advance, for your work on protecting us all.

        Patrick Levine Rose


        1. Ruth, your comment was: “It is impossible to open a university safely during a pandemic unless everyone stays home to teach, learn, and administer the education. That is why they call it a pandemic.”

        2. I had written, in part: “The study authors suggest that it is possible to prevent a large outbreak by following key mitigation strategies.”

        3. Countries that pursued mitigation strategies listed in the Study reduced the spread of Covid-19 to very few new cases (or deaths), including New Zealand (and many other countries).

        Comparing New Zealand and the U.S. suggests MSU should adopt mitigation: “New Zealand adopted a strong, science-driven, proactive, and centrally planned response, and executed it well. By contrast, the United States adopted a weak, incremental, and decentralized response, relying mostly on states, localities, and market actors to respond to the pandemic. The main consequence of these fateful choices is captured in Figure 1. To date, more than 110,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, with economic costs exceeding $3 trillion and no end in sight. New Zealanders, on the other hand, have experienced only about 1,500 cases and 22 deaths (the equivalent in population percentage terms to about 1,400 Americans). Although the crisis in America continues, the crisis in New Zealand is over.” Richard Parker, Lessons from New Zealand/s Covid-19 Success, The Regulatory Review, Univ of Penn (June 9, 2020).


        • The mitigation strategies won’t work because they ignore the behavior of unsupervised young people which make 6,7,8, and 9 moot and 10 just silly.

          I am not saying one way or the other if the U should open. I am just tired of hearing that it can open safely.

          • I’m not confident about a safe reopening. I have been at Sparrow Hospital daily this week, and the hospital is not enforcing face masks for visitors, patients and even some staff members – or limits of two people per elevator. On Tuesday, a constant topic among patients and staff was the report of 20+ Covid-19 cases associated with an East Lansing bar, along with fears of students returning. I would estimate about 80 percent of people, young and old, are considerate, abiding by restrictions. But is that enough to restore the trust required for safe reopening? Patrick is sadly right about need for enforcement, and I thank the mayor for raising questions.

          • Safely for whom? Based on current “science and data”, it appears that there is very little mortality or morbidity risk to the college-age population from this virus. Released last week in NatureMedicine (https://rdcu.be/b49IP), a new study suggests that mitigation among students under 20 is likely to have only a small impact on the spread of this disease. Using comprehensive demographic data from multiple studies from six countries, their model showed that people under 20 are about half as susceptible to the virus as people over 20. Among 10 to 19 year-olds, only 21% of those infected had clinical symptoms.

            And, as pointed out in the originally-cited Inside Higher Ed study that started this thread, if students were to be allowed to huddle together for a few months, as they are wont, infection rates could be such that they would emerge with a herd immunity by Thanksgiving, with few issues. Since many, if not most students are away from home and loved ones anyway, and living with others of similar age and circumstance, I can see why they are finding it difficult to refrain from doing what they came here to do.

            The risk is much greater for others whose path they might cross while contagious but, even then, only for a select subset of that group – the older and health compromised. It would seem then, that a more practical, productive and popular path might be to work on defining who would be most at-risk, and working to mitigate *their* exposure. That could mean quarantine for the elderly and immunocompromised, and anyone else with one or more of the co-morbidities that have been shown to be dangerous with this disease, until a vaccine or treatment solution arrives. Some in that group, for whatever reason, might feel compelled to “roll the dice”, and should be allowed to do so.

            In such a re-opening, where student interaction is encouraged, faculty and staff could have multiple mitigation options available. Classes might be held, with no size limits, but professor/proctors could opt for a remote live-tv experience. This has been a feature of MSU education since the ’60s, with no adverse effects on the quality of the educational/social experience. Adjunct online options could be offered to students who would prefer that method. All other staff positions and personnel could be evaluated with a focus on both the health profile of the individuals and the newly modified job descriptions. Those new descriptions could include regular testing, etc. with designation of many administrative areas off-limits to students and many other measures to limit casual student contact, wherever possible. In the end, however, there will likely be a number of faculty and staff, for whom a return to work, under those conditions, would not be advisable. They could opt to sit out, until satisfactory treatment options emerge, or an effective vaccine is introduced. The rest of us would move on.

            Of course, our community at-large extends far beyond East Lansing and Michigan State, and what we do here will send ripples (or waves) across the rest of our region, but there really is no way to be “like we were before”. Truth is, for the vast majority of our population, there are many things worse than a case of COVID-19. I believe that our experiences of the past 3-4 months will prove to be but an ugly and informative chapter in our lives, and that it’s time to turn the page. A cautiously informed re-opening of MSU (and all area schools) will be a welcomed first step in that process.

          • Thanks for your post Mark. According to a New York frontline MD, and a Nobel prize winner scientist Dr Michael Levitt, lockdown is not a preventative method for any virus. Here’s an excerpt summary from an interview with Dr Levitt:
            “The rate of SARS-CoV-2 mortality never experienced exponential growth, as was predicted, which suggests a majority of people may have had some sort of prior resistance to the virus
            Statistical data reveals a mathematical pattern that has stayed consistent regardless of the interventions implemented. After two weeks of exponential growth, the growth curve quickly becomes sub-exponential.”

            Recently I was listening to yet another authority on viruses and it was stated that pandemic viruses are known to usually run their course in 3 waves and with each wave the virus tends to mutate and become less virulent. Common sense practices which have been promoted and used such as staying home when one is sick, washing hands and not touching the face are extremely helpful in curbing the spread of disease. Part of my undergraduate degree was in health and after only two videos of how disease is spread, I decided to experiment by washing my hands often and not touching my face, I wasn’t sick once that year when I always had 2 viral illnesses per year. This isn’t a scientific study but actions based on scientific studies which promote common sense tactics. I sometimes wonder why we tend not to take the simple yet profound methods seriously.

            While most of us wouldn’t wish illness on ourselves, herd immunity is the natural way a community acquires greater resistance over time. This is the first time in history the healthy have been quarantined which is contrary to the productive and solid standards we have employed in the past. The concept of “stay at home” technique was only to slow the virus down because Covid-19 presented fast acting symptoms which ended up overloading the hospitals very quickly. It was not to eradicate the virus. Doctors have repeatedly mentioned that the virus cannot be stopped and will eventually run its course through society as all viral infections do. Encouraging common sense practices and protecting the economic progress of a community by allowing businesses and individuals (including those with previous compromised health or those who become ill) the choice to act with wisdom while re-engaging in normal life, seems reasonable based on solid scientific evidence.

            -Chrissie Mack

          • My two cents, from a FB post:

            In Puerto Rico, the Governor issued a 9-5am curfew. Violators were given a $5,000 ticket. There have been few violations and widespread compliance. Puerto Ricans were not too crazy about the curfew but hey, that’s a hefty fine!
            And E. Lansing says there’s no way to get students and businesses to wear masks! And every other store has a sign: No shirts, no shoes, no service. And that has been going on for twenty years. And the compliance rate is very, very high. As a matter of fact, 100%. It’s about will, not difficulty.


        • I completely disagree, students make a mess spread mess and leave a mess for the facility and staff, mess also meaning germs. Half the time when they use the restroom they don’t flush or wash. One thing is forsure regardless of the safety precautions in the classroom, as soon as they come back they will be going out to the bar and parties drinking and smoking. Spreading covid, the students won’t be the victims of a covid spike, the facility staff and their families will be the victims.

          – Nathan Hoard

        • Patrick,

          I don’t live in East Lansing anymore, but am still in a university community here in Ann Arbor.

          Your response to Ruth included the following:

          [The Study recommended simple mitigation strategies: 1. Classes less than 30 students or Online, 2. Fever Checks/Symptom evaluation before Class, 3. Testing/Re-testing of Positive Results, 4. Quarantine, 5. Contact Tracing, 6. Universal Face Mask Wearing, 7. Social Distancing. 8. Limits on Student Social Contacts Outside Classroom, 9. Measures to Insure Compliance, including some Enforcement, 10. Signed Agreement by all University Community Members to Follow These Rules.]

          I refer you to #8 and the news about the situation at Harper’s this past weekend. No surprise there. Young people looking to socialize especially with alcohol involved are not thinking about mitigation strategies, people at risk or about the pandemic. They are in a different mindset. There is also evidence this age group, responsible for so much of the spread especially since most are asymptomatic, are more cavalier about the whole thing. Many believe it won’t affect them. Unfortunately, they come in contact with others at grocery stores, pharmacies, etc. and spread it to unsuspecting people attempting to follow mitigation strategies like wearing a mask.

          I am also concerned about students socializing between universities and going back and forth between their hometowns. It’s a constant game of whack-a-mole.

          I suspect that smaller colleges may be able to pull this off, but large universities like MSU, Michigan and OSU will struggle, and unfortunately, the end game will be more spread and more deaths.

          If institutions decide to go ahead, I think it is imperative that all students are required to complete a learning module that teaches the facts about the virus and the importance of mitigation strategies. The politization of the virus has led to a lot of misinformation being spewed across social media so it’s important students have the facts based on the current science. One can never assume a person’s accurate knowledge about Covid-19. These modules are no different than those many of us take in our jobs related to sexual harassment, racial discrimination or blood borne pathogens. Public school personnel must take these types of learning modules, including a short quiz, every fall. It is mandatory for employment.

          It’s only working together that we can keep each other safe.

          Susan Schmidt

          Ann Arbor

          • I hope someone with clout from MSU sees Susan Schmidt’s recommendation of a required module on COVID-19. That makes perfect sense and fits the role of a university to a T.

  1. The Mayor was so inspiring on MSNBC.
    To quote Mayor Beier, ““That said, Michigan State University and East Lansing together – I think we are going to be a model for the rest of the country very quickly. We are going to become a mask-wearing society. This virus is going to be around for years. And we’re going to work to adopt mask wearing and just the thing that you do every day. Get up, you walk out, you put on your mask. You go to college, you put on your mask. You go to work, you put on your mask.”
    As a member of the community, and a person helping to lead the return to campus at MSU, THANK YOU, Mayor Beier! Together, we can do this. Together, we can be an example for the nation.


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