A new Virginia Tech study suggests large outbreaks of Coronavirus at colleges and universities will continue to grow unless certain behaviors change. Researchers looked at millions of simulations of interactions by students living on campus that suggest, large outbreaks are likely to spread – and fast.
Colleges and universities that offered in-person classes on campus became hot spots for Coronavirus infections. That’s the finding of a 5-month study its authors say, can be summarized in five words: “Large outbreaks are very likely.”
The very word 'college' speaks volumes.
“The fact that when you have a lot of individuals that live and interact in a very connected manner as is common for college populations, enhances disease spread, " says Lauren Childs. A math professor at Virginia Tech, specializing in infectious disease spread. “And in most settings, for a college experience you really interact with a large number of people from different disciplines, different backgrounds, different locations.That's what the college experience strives for. But unfortunately, that's also what makes COVID spread so significantly.”
Working with lead researcher, Navid Ghaffarzadegan and Physicist Uve Tauber, they did meta-analysis of data from several universities. And,what they basically found says Tauber, is that what makes college such a wonderful experience is, unfortunately, also what helps Coronavirus spread there so quickly.
Tauber says “The great college experience that really, our students deserve, would be massive interactions with everyone. You want to be exposed to a large variety of ideas, of different people that go beyond your initial background, that really takes you out of your comfort zone, of your fixed friendship group.”
The data for this study is based on millions of simulations, examples of real interactions, their frequency and effects. Tauber says simulation provides a snapshot of the present, but one that can be changed by future behavior. He points out, that this study looks back at data from the past five months, but that following any and all safety guidelines could change the direction of Coronavirus spread.
“We all can change the really drastic forecasts we’re seeing, and we shouldn't be enslaved by what we're seeing in the simulations. We just need to change our behavior to prove them wrong in that sense. I think, as a human society, we have the capabilities to do so."
He mourns the loss of the truly collegial college experience… the academics and the social aspects.
“So, I don't think we can really do justice to what college education should be these days. And in that respect, you know, we can try and get as close as we can, as we're doing, you know, talking over zoom and forming groups there. And we're all learning as the entire world is doing in this pandemic to do our best under the circumstances. But it's not really going to be that full possibility that college life should have.”
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As for the good news, according to the study, universities are doing well keeping disease spread down with social distance in the classroom, but when it comes to social events, not so much. The models show most new infections are traced to those gatherings.