Evidence Suggests It’s Not Time to Panic About COVID-19 on Campus

On Nov. 12, a Review front-page story titled “Uptick in COVID-19 Cases Prompts Student Frustration” cited student concerns about an increase in COVID-19 cases, while the editorial “27 COVID-19 Cases Indicates Insufficient Mitigation Strategy” called for mandatory routine testing. Neither of these articles provided sufficient contextual data about COVID-19. While both articles were written before the World Health Organization announced a new COVID-19 variant, Omicron, it is uncertain whether Omicron could be more or less severe, contagious, or vaccine resistant than other COVID-19 variants. Even so, the omissions from the two articles are misleading. If we take a more evidence-based approach to thinking about the virus, we can better understand what these cases mean and how we should respond to them.

First, we need to understand that the current state of COVID-19 may be the new normal for the foreseeable future. According to many epidemiologists, COVID-19 will soon become endemic, if it is not already. While getting more people vaccinated will boost herd immunity, progress will be limited by the almost 15 percent of the country that have been steadfastly refusing the vaccine for months with no indication of changing their mind. Policymakers can no longer pretend that we can “beat” COVID-19 if we implement sufficiently strict preventative measures for just long enough. COVID-19 is here to stay. If we acknowledge that, we can make more rational decisions about how we want to act for the foreseeable future.

Second, stricter preventative measures are not always better. For example, Oberlin’s choice to impose an outdoor mask mandate flew in the face of all available data on COVID-19 transmission and placed an unnecessary burden on students without offering any significant increase in protection. To avoid these mistakes, every public health policy Oberlin implements should pass a data-driven cost-benefit analysis.

Assessing the risk of COVID-19 requires a nuanced look at the data. Car accidents kill 1.3 million people every year. That raw total does not, by itself, justify every possible traffic regulation. Setting a maximum speed limit of 10 miles per hour on every road in America would undoubtedly prevent thousands of automobile deaths, but it would be a terrible policy. Using national CDC statistics, we can take a more precise look at the threat COVID-19 poses to Oberlin students. The weekly rate of breakthrough infections for vaccinated Americans ages 18–29 is around 79 cases per 100,000 people. 27 cases in the Oberlin community indicate that we are currently experiencing a higher rate of infection, but this is consistent with the fact that the virus spreads through outbreaks, and thus positivity rates will fluctuate above and below the average. 

Contrary to sensationalist reporting by media publications like The New York Times, breakthrough infections are relatively rare. Regardless, positive cases are a natural result of the return to normal life, and evidence shows that vaccines protect against serious negative outcomes. While the weekly hospitalization rate for vaccinated Americans ages 18–49 has recently risen to around four per 100,000, for most of 2021 it hovered around 0.7 per 100,000. The rate for 18—29-year-olds is likely to be significantly lower. For context, the weekly flu hospitalization rate for 18—49 year olds was roughly 1.9 per 100,000 during the relatively mild 2018—2019 season. 

Furthermore, the weekly death rate for vaccinated 18–29-year-olds hovers between zero and 0.03 deaths per 100,000 people. To put these exceedingly small numbers in perspective, in 2020 cars caused 0.25 weekly deaths per 100,000 people in the U.S. If you are a vaccinated American aged 18–29, you are over 61 times more likely to die in a car crash than you are to die of COVID-19. Since almost all of these deaths have occurred since August, when vaccine efficacy started showing signs of decline, getting a booster shot will lower your risk even more. 

If you are worried about infecting others, vaccinated people ages 30–49 are still about two times more likely to die in a car accident than of COVID-19. Older people are less protected — vaccinated people ages 50–64, 65–79, and 80+ are 1.59, 6.4, and 26.6 times more likely to die of COVID-19 than in a car accident, respectively. These figures are concerning but, for reference, the flu in 2018–2019 was 1.2 to 4.8 times more deadly for seniors than COVID-19 is for vaccinated people ages 65–79. I don’t recall Oberlin students demanding mandatory weekly flu testing. Still, if you are going to be unmasked in close, indoor proximity to older adults, you should have a different risk calculus than if you are in a community of college students.

I use vehicle safety as a reference because billions of people drive every day without questioning their level of risk. People certainly do not shame others for putting lives in danger when they drive to work in the morning. Perhaps they should. Regardless, there is a risk of death in everything we do, and if we more accurately understand these risks, we can make better choices. If you are vaccinated, the risk of COVID-19 is still present, especially if you are older, but it is lower than many people may assume.

The CDC figures I used are national averages, but let’s look at Oberlin more specifically. While the national vaccination rate is just 59.3 percent, 97.4 percent of Oberlin College is fully vaccinated. Students have raised concerns that only 90.5 percent of Oberlin staff are vaccinated, or that non-College residents are less likely to be vaccinated. The most relevant figure, however, is that 99 percent of Oberlin students have uploaded proof of full vaccination, because COVID-19 is primarily transmitted socially, and Oberlin students mainly socialize with other students. The risk of COVID-19 transmission is highest during maskless indoor contact within six feet, for more than 15 minutes. Oberlin students typically only have this level of close contact with each other, and not with faculty, staff, or town residents.

Some students may spend time maskless in town establishments like The Feve or Slow Train Cafe, but even then they are mostly interacting with other vaccinated students. Students with higher risk tolerance can choose to be less socially cautious and still be unlikely to experience serious negative outcomes. Students who are especially concerned about contracting COVID-19 can limit their exposure to less risk-averse students by wearing a mask and practicing social distancing. With full vaccination and these precautions, you are highly protected against the virus and may not need regular testing.

I do not know how expensive or effective it would be for Oberlin to institute a routine testing program. The benefits may outweigh the costs, but we should think carefully about whether mandatory testing is the most effective and sustainable use of Oberlin’s resources in the long term. If students who engage in riskier social behavior want mandatory testing, they should consider whether it is fair to make more cautious students pay for it in tuition increases. Additionally, money spent on testing is money not spent properly compensating workers, supporting low-income students, improving facilities, or properly staffing vital College offices. We should know these costs before demanding institutional testing.