Don't send sick college kids home

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Don't send sick college kids home

A consensus is building among public health experts that it's better to keep university students on campus after a Covid-19 outbreak than to send them home as many are doing.

It's easier to isolate exposed students and trace the people they've been in contact with if they stay put, said Ravina Kullar, epidemiologist and spokesperson for the Infectious Diseases Society of America. Sending them home risks exposing family members and others to the virus and increases the likelihood of its spread.

"There's just inevitably going to be an outbreak," she said. "Colleges need to take on the burden of having these students kept at their campus and taking care of them."

Movers wearing protective masks help students move into freshman housing at South Campus Plaza on the San Diego State University campus in San Diego.

Photographer: Bing Guan/Bloomberg

Contact tracing is an effective tool to manage outbreaks when done correctly. For schools that send people home, identifying everyone they may have come into contact with becomes much more challenging, especially for out-of-state students.

"That will make the job very difficult, if not impossible," said Howard Koh, former assistant secretary for health for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and a professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

U.S. President Donald Trump spoke of the risk last month while urging campuses to reopen, saying that sending students home after an outbreak could put relatives at risk. "Instead of saving lives, a decision to close universities could cost lives," he said.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was one of the first to reverse in-person learning, sending students home to complete the semester remotely after the school was hit with an outbreak. Colleges including Towson University and East Carolina University have done the same. 

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo says schools in the state will switch to online learning for two weeks if they record 100 cases or 5% of the population gets infected, but students will stay on campus. The University of Notre Dame adopted the same strategy, and announced it would resume in-person classes this week.—Olivia Raimonde

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