The students are back at the University of Idaho and Washington State University. Our COVID-19 cases are skyrocketing, and my bet will be that with the increased testing that’s been ordered, we’ll see more case numbers.
A good proportion of the public is in a panic — mostly elderly, convinced that the students are a death sentence. As well as a good hunk of the professoriate. I know lots of folks that upon hearing the order for lockdown back in March, grabbed their 50-pound bag of lentils and headed for the figurative hills.
The condemnations of our student population are coming hot and heavy. Irresponsible students, they are the source of all our problems. Partying, the usual things. Well, students do these kinds of things. They must be the real problem we have with COVID-19.
Here’s the big thing — both our communities have always had an ambivalent attitude toward what is still our primary source of income. To remind folks, the only reason our island in the middle of the wheat can still function is because some percentage of parents and students have decided that it is a safe place for adolescents to finish up growing up. Expecting anything else is nuts. People go through developmental stages, and we’ve marketed that experience, complete with fraternities and football. We did it – not them.
But it’s time to get a little real about this COVID-19 thing and the students. Every morning I wake up. I check the numbers. Up. But real consequences? Hospitalizations? Zero. Deaths? Zero. We’ve been doing the school thing for at least four weeks now. COVID-19 has an incubation period of 5 days to 2 weeks. Cases, yes. But consequences? None.
And when it comes to all the methods of containing the virus — lockdowns, masks, etc. — it’s not obvious that any of our own interventions came in time to make much difference. Inslee’s mask order didn’t come until June 26. I was wearing a mask a long time before that. But the unmasked would steer away from me like I had, well, the Plague. Before that date, if you think everyone was locked up in their house like you might have been, I’ve got news. Walmart was still full as it is when students aren’t here in the summer. We were busy spreading away. COVID-19 came to my class in late February — even though no tests were available.
When I go out, I see students all wearing masks. There might be some parties. But if you’re scared, you can take consolation in this. Viral intensity is directly affected by both seasonality and sociality. With the sun still high in the sky, immunity is up. Sociality might need a little rein in here, but the virus ain’t doing too good. And we’re building community immunity as well, like it or not. I’ll take some deviations from the plan now. Especially because when we had no plan, it didn’t really seem much to matter. We’ve had ostensible super-spreader event after event, and there has been NO consequences. Maybe we should adopt a little humility towards our neighbors — students, evangelicals and otherwise — and realize that our actions, positive or negative, have had very limited effect.
I’m still going to be wearing my mask and following directives. But I’d ask everyone to remember that this thing is going to end (it’s already on its way) and we’re all going to have to live together. We might start casting about for better models of how the virus actually works, instead of looking at an unmasked face and assuming that person is condemning us to death. Communities that engage in that kind of thinking end up in civil war.
When it ends, our collective actions will show we didn’t beat this thing together. We did a haphazard, slipshod job of conformity. And it didn’t really change much.
I’ll keep looking at the data. Maybe it will change. But for now, zero hospitalizations. Zero deaths. That’s the thing that really matters.
Chuck Pezeshki is a professor in mechanical and materials engineering at Washington State University.