(opinion) good to close

Squires Student Center lies empty, although open, as Virginia Tech shuts down classes and moves to online-only in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, March 18, 2020.

At the time of writing this, March 19, 2020, it’s been 81 days since the world first heard of the deadly virus, roughly 71 days since the WHO identified the risk of a novel coronavirus, and 59 days since the CDC reported the first known case in the United States. Consequently, there are zero rolls of toilet paper remaining on the shelves of my local grocery stores. At this time, the reader and author are probably sharing an uncannily similar experience; they are cooped up within the confines of their homes, fervently updating their knowledge on the nature of the virus known as COVID-19 and wondering when all this will blow over.

I can say for certain that when I first wrote my article back in February for the Collegiate Times, I could not foresee any of this coming. The words of Jianuo Huang, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering and president of the Association of Chinese Students and Scholars, who is also a native of the city of Wuhan, from our last interview, still ring in my mind.

“I think sometimes the U.S. is underplaying the risk,” Huang said.

He was right. The deep freeze that came over the city of Wuhan, as I described it in the February article, has spread across the globe as we all move indoors to avoid its icy sting. For the moment, many Hokies are enjoying their extended spring break, adulterated with a tinge of isolation and paranoia.

On March 11, Virginia Tech announced its decision to extend spring break and transition all courses online starting March 23, similar to the decisions made by other universities around the country earlier that week. The question is if it was the correct response, to send the student populations back home for the remainder of their semester, over a disease whose threat is still, frustratingly, debated over. 

There is hardly one sacred thing in this country that stands uncorrupted by the polarizing force of politicization. This glib reality stands no less relevant today in the midst of a global pandemic.

On Feb. 28, during a rally in South Carolina, the president dismissed the looming threat of COVID-19 in the U.S. as the "new hoax” the Democratic Party was using against him to tarnish his approval ratings. He doubled down on this sentiment with a tweet published March 9, comparing the disease to the flu and remarking about the efforts made to contain its spread.

A new Axios|SurveyMonkey poll found that beliefs that the seriousness of the coronavirus is exaggerated were divided pretty neatly along partisan lines. 

The polling website reports, “62% of Republicans see news reports about the seriousness of the novel coronavirus as ‘generally exaggerated,’ double the percentage of Democrats saying so (31%).”

Despite your beliefs, there is not much to exaggerate when it comes to the efficacy of proactive school closures in containing outbreaks.

In an article published by Science, Nicholas Christakis, a physician at Yale, outlines the differences between reactive and proactive school closures and their corresponding effects.

“Reactive is when a school decides to close when a student or parent or staff member is sick,” Christakis said. “ … Proactive school closures — closing schools before there’s a case there — have been shown to be one of the most powerful nonpharmaceutical interventions that we can deploy.”

Further on in the article, Christakis cites data analyses of the Spanish Influenza of 1918 to vouch for proactive closure’s efficacy.

“What they found was that proactive school closing saved substantial numbers of lives,” Christakis said. “St. Louis closed the schools about a day in advance of the epidemic spiking, for 143 days. Pittsburgh closed 7 days after the peak and only for 53 days. And the death rate for the epidemic in St. Louis was roughly one-third as high as in Pittsburgh. These things work.”

If the words of a well-credentialed authority like Christakis don’t sway you, consider the impact it would have on the healthcare system in the general Blacksburg area if we hadn’t chosen to suspend the remainder of the semester. Generally, outbreaks can be seen as a stressor on the healthcare system as they have to deal with large influxes of patients. Now, imagine a student population of over 30,000 gathering in a small mountain town during a global pandemic, rapidly spreading the disease among each other; the facilities local to Blacksburg just aren’t equipped for that. 

Italy has already been experiencing this terrifying problem, where hospitals in the region of Lombardy are unable to admit new patients. LewisGale hospital in Montgomery County, which is the closest hospital to the university, only has 88 staffed beds and 10 ICU beds for those in need of intensive care. That means that even if 0.03% of the student population had a severe reaction to the virus, the hospital would be over admitted. Even the most conservative estimates based on statistics in South Korea find the disease has a mortality rate of 0.6%, more than enough to create this flooding effect in local hospitals. The larger the population that remains in Blacksburg, the greater the risk they will be siphoning resources from the elderly population who seems to be threatened by this disease more than any other population.

Juan Pacheco, a senior majoring in psychology, is now experiencing his last semester within the four walls of his bedroom. If anyone deserves to complain, it's the graduating class, who have to surrender their final memories of college to a virus. But Pacheco is taking it all with grace and acceptance.

“I feel like Virginia Tech did the right thing, and I never agree with Virginia Tech,” Pacheco said. “I think they did right because we see how fast the Hokie Plague spreads, and it’s better (that we close campus) because so many elderly and immunocompromised people live near campus. I don’t always think Virginia Tech lives up to their motto of Ut Prosim, but this time they really did.”

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