Amid mounting concerns over COVID-19, college students are faced with a difficult choice: to travel or not to travel over spring break.
Last week, universities in Los Angeles and across the country sent advisories to students, begging them to consider the consequences of their travel plans.
In an email sent to students Monday night, UCLA chancellor Gene Block advised against traveling to China, South Korea, Iran, or Italy. Other universities, like University of Pennsylvania, urged students to avoid traveling at all. “Amid this uncertainty, any travel, domestic or international, could heighten your risk of exposure,” an email sent to students Monday read.
Third-year UCLA student Samantha Haong is from Kirkland, Washington, where four people have died from coronavirus and many others are quarantined. Her social feeds are filled with photos of empty Costco shelves, high schools around her home are closed, and a quarter of the city’s firefighters are in quarantine.
Still, she plans on going home for spring break.
Other students like Tori Tanaka, also a third-year UCLA student, weigh the decision differently. Tanaka lives across a lake from Kirkland in Seattle. Her family had planned to travel to London over spring break, but outbreaks in other European cities have threatened to cancel those plans. No matter what, she says she’ll probably stay on campus instead of returning to Washington.
“I don’t want to risk it,” she says. “It’s scary that it’s that close to home.”
Amesh Adalja, an expert in emerging infectious diseases and pandemic preparedness from Johns Hopkins University, says at this point in the virus’ progression, there are few if any steps universities can take to prevent the spread on their campuses. To him, it’s simply not a containable virus.
Traveling domestically, even to Washington, won’t make a tremendous difference in the spread of the disease. Before Tuesday evening, the CDC limited COVID-19 tests to those with severe symptoms or who had come in direct contact with an infected patient. This likely means many other communities have undetected, milder cases of the virus, even if they’re not in the news, Adalja says.
“Washington is a canary in the coal mine,” he says.
If campuses can’t prevent the spread of the virus, they may need to start bracing themselves for the inevitability of infection.
The best way to do this, Adalja says, is to encourage sick students to stay home, which both UCLA and USC emphasized in their letters to students. However, Tanaka says it’s not that easy. With impending exams, many students feel pressured to fight their symptoms and attend class, or risk falling behind.
“We’re about to have finals,” Tanaka says. “You can’t not go to class.”
The safety and wellbeing of our faculty, staff, students, and patients are extremely important to us. While there are no cases of COVID-19 at USC, we want to ensure you are updated on our planning and preparation. Please refer to this site for updates: https://t.co/g7VmZmbGal
— USC (@USC) March 4, 2020
In response to the declared state of emergency in Los Angeles Wednesday morning, UCLA officials said they would work to expand remote teaching and learning tools.
Haong says some of her professors will allow sick students to skip their midterms but make the final worth double the amount of points, incentivizing students to show up to the exam room even if they’re not well.
“Professors care but they don’t care enough,” she says.
Furthermore, the combination of densely packed dormitories and students from across the globe make college campuses particularly vulnerable to infectious diseases. In the last ten years, universities have dealt with an array of outbreaks, from mumps to norovirus to meningococcal disease.
Tanaka says she’s still not sure UCLA would be equipped to handle what she sees as an inevitable outbreak of a highly contagious airborne disease. Given UCLA’s slow response to cancel classes during the Getty Fire, she says she’s worried about their organization and judgement.
“I’m not sure how much I trust the school’s response if you look at their track record,” she says.