Tell me if my college town sounds like yours.
There’s a pretty big campus. Immediately off campus, there are three main bars that students pack into whenever school’s not happening. One’s known for brunch, another for cheap drafts, and another for packing in hundreds of people at a time, at least 25% of whom probably got in by showing the bouncer an index card that says “I AM 21.”
Sometimes, there are snow days. And on snow days, these places are jammed, because what else are you doing on a snow day in College Park, Maryland? If you live off campus and not in a closed-down dorm, you can make that decision any time. Right now, you shouldn’t.
I talked for a while with Boris Lushniak, a former deputy and acting surgeon general in the Obama administration and now the dean of Maryland’s School of Public Health.
Please listen to his message: Your classes are canceled, or maybe they’ve shifted to online-only, but the coronavirus pandemic is not a snow day.
“The idea from the University of Maryland and many other universities’ perspective is that putting a bunch of students together in a classroom, that makes them uncomfortable,” Lushniak told me. “The only difference sometimes between hanging out in a classroom and hanging out in a bar is the drink in your hand.”
College kids, you think you’re invincible, and honestly, I get it.
You have spent your time on campus doing unbelievably reckless things, and time and again, you have emerged. Some examples from people I asked:
- “I did a mile run in my underwear, entire body fell ass first into a thorn bush, then fell asleep on a picnic table in the courtyard of the fraternity.”
- “I rode an office chair down a fairly steep parking ramp. Twice. The 2nd time was because my friend wanted it on video.”
- “2 four lokos and a Taco Bell taco box challenge”
- “Cut down a xmas tree at CMU w/ sweated butter knife. Dragged down and up Panther Hollow. Used tv cable to haul it up the side of Bruce Hall and into the dorm.”
- “One time my buddy tried to see how far he could drive without hands.”
- “Allowed myself to get a sinus infection so that I could get stronger meds from my university health system. Then traded some for enough Adderall to force myself to stay up for 36 hours straight on 4/20 so I could smoke the entire time.”
- “‘Pitched’ bottle rockets from inside the living room window while the batter was holding a wiffle ball bat.”
You, a college student, have reason to think your reckless decisions don’t have consequences. It is not a true opinion, but I understand why you harbor it.
The coronavirus has nothing to do with your ability to survive any of that.
The thing about “drunkenly stumbling into the woods to find your fake ID at 3 a.m., after you threw it there to avoid a cop taking it off you, and finding a passed-out friend lying in a bed of vomit-covered poison ivy” is that you cannot pass this along to somebody else.
You can, however, pass the coronavirus to somebody else if you go into a place with a lot of people and not a lot of space – like, perhaps, your college bar. You could get it by not washing your hands, being sneezed on, or touching the wrong thing and then putting your hand on your face.
“There’s this whole idea, and a lot of municipalities and localities are now setting up certain rules: ‘Well, we don’t wanna have gatherings of 250 or more.’ Well, guess what? There’s no magic in that,” Lushniak, the former surgeon general, says. “It kind of says, ‘We don’t want big gatherings.’ It doesn’t mean, ‘If we have 200 people in the room, you’re safe.’ That’s kind of almost a fallacy that somehow there’s this magic cutoff.
“In essence, there’s a risk factor in being around others, and the risk goes up with people being ill around you, and the risk goes up with what you, yourself, are doing with your hands and with your face.”
There’s no need to exaggerate the risks.
“The whole idea of rubbing shoulders with somebody, probably not,” Lushniak says. “Very low risk. But if you’re close enough to have rubbed shoulders with them, and that person happens to sneeze or cough in your direction, then all of a sudden, voila.”
The safest thing you can do is not go to anything like a bar right now. If you must drink in public, because you are a college student and cannot muster the self-control, you should consider a place where you sit far apart from your friends.
“The whole idea of the six-foot rule,” Lushniak says. “It’s kind of a funky idea to think about sitting around having beers when you’re six feet away from others. You know, is it applicable in certain beer halls? Yeah, it’s certainly better than being on top of each other.”
You’re aware old people and those with compromised immune systems are at risk, but you’re not worried about that either, because you don’t interact with such people.
Hey, you’re living in your off-campus house. You won’t see your grandparents for another few months, and you don’t have class today. What is, you are wondering, the big deal?
The average person who has the coronavirus gives it to somewhere between two and three people. Multiple people on this chain could be asymptomatic, Lushniak says. That means that to be confident you’re not giving the virus to someone who’s at added risk of dying from it, you’d better be damn sure nobody else in that crowded bar hangs with old people, and that they don’t hang out with anybody who hangs out with old people.
If you don’t listen to the experts, you might be contributing to serious sickness or death. You should consider that your age set (of which I’m also a member) is a high-volume carrier:
Here’s something that’s absolutely terrifying: a comparison of the age distributions of Covid-19 cases in Italy, where they are only testing people who show symptoms, and S. Korea, which has broad testing. A whole lot of 20-29yos out there who feel just fine but are v contagious. pic.twitter.com/BU96h3VKUc— Mark Byrne (@markwby) March 14, 2020
“They’re walking around feeling completely normal, but at the same time potentially spreading the disease to others,” Lushniak says. “And therein lies the rub. ‘OK, I’m hanging out with a bunch of people my age.’ Yeah, that’s people at low risk, except, perhaps, for that individual who may be on medication that makes them immuno-supressed, so now you’ve put another person at risk.
“And you’re hanging around with older adults, right? All of a sudden, you may be the carrier that brings disease into that household.”
This sort of spread is how the American hospital system could become overwhelmed, and it’s the most important reason you should practice social distancing.
Even if you’re young and healthy, you don’t want the coronavirus, and there’s a ton we don’t know about it.
People healthier than you can face horrible illness because they catch the coronavirus, like this young veteran:
A friend of mine got #coronavirus. He is younger than me. Played sports in college. Served in the military. As young and healthy as you could be. This is how his wife describes the illness. This is a public health crisis. No one is immune. pic.twitter.com/8dYU61PJMT— Tommy Vietor (@TVietor08) March 15, 2020
The disease’s death rate is around 3.5%, and the vast majority of fatalities are older people or those with underlying health conditions. The death rate for otherwise healthy people between 20 and 25 is “almost down to zero,” Lushniak says. But that’s not the same as zero itself, and it’s clear young people face real risks. COVID-19 can cause pneumonia, which is terrible and might take a long time to kick. Several stories are floating around like this one, in which young and otherwise healthy people ...
Important point: we really don’t know much about his virus. I’m young and not high risk, yet I am in t th he ICU with a very severe case— c L e Me N t (@ClementYChow) March 15, 2020
... face enormous complications because of the virus:
My breathing was so compromised that I couldn’t keep my O2 levels up even wi 10L of oxygen— c L e Me N t (@ClementYChow) March 15, 2020
There isn’t evidence yet, Lushniak says, that it’ll cause long-term health effects on the typical young person. But that could be because the virus is so new and unknown.
“Part of the uncertainty here is, in fact, the uncertainty here,” Lushniak says. “Part of the reason why all these things are happening here is you ask me a bunch of questions, and I can give you best guesses, right? And then there’s a bunch of questions you can ask me, and I can say ‘I don’t know,’ because I’ve never seen this thing before. And I think that in itself should bring that level not to panic, not to extreme worry, but to wariness. Don’t worry. Be wary.”
Thank you for listening, if you’ve scrolled this far.
“Everybody needs to basically consider, ‘What’s their role in preventing this from getting worse?’” Lushniak says. “And if it gets down to the bar owner, the restaurant owner, consider how you can mitigate what’s going on in your place of business?
“Does it mean closing? Does it mean limiting? I’m asking them to sort of consider, ‘What is their role in disease prevention?’”
College students (and postgrads who do college student-like things), your role is to think about people who have a lot more on the line than you. Please do it.