Earlier this past week, Gov. Jim Justice suggested that the state begin testing all college students for Covid-19. He saw it as a strategy to reduce the transmission of a highly infectious disease that has been raging out of control – not just in some other corner of the country, but right here at home where the state had the dubious distinction on Friday of posting the third worst transmission rate of all.
But we see the same opportunity as the governor as a way not just to slow the accelerated pace of community spread of the virus but also as an opportunity to teach one and all the value of discipline and honor and to get students back on campus where the college experience will be a whole lot better than hanging out in the family basement.
The governor, in a fit of pique, was essentially blaming the kids for stirring the hornets nest that this pandemic has been. It was unfair.
“They’re running around everywhere under the sun,” the governor said, “and many of them – many of them – are people with Covid, and they have no idea.”
Well, he could have said that about a lot of adults whom we see at the grocery and hardware stores, and at church, maskless, willfully ignoring what the governor’s own health experts advise.
Justrice could have wagged his finger at us all, but he laid the blame at the feet of our college-age kids.
We understand and share the governor’s frustration. This fall has not been what we had all hoped – back to school, back to collegiate sports, back to our favorite restaurants, back to the movie theater and back to some comfortable and wickedly necessary distractions.
Back to a sense of normalcy.
But Covid’s fall surge has turned into the Thanksgiving Superspreader Event from Hell. The state is now posting a positive test rate at or above 7 percent on a regular – often daily – basis. On Thanksgiving Day, West Virginia had 15,326 active Covid cases. On Saturday? Nearly half as many again for a total of 22,249.
No, not the best fall at all and we are nowhere near this place we once knew as normal.
So when the governor says, as he did at the Monday pandemic briefing, that “We need to really bear down on the sector of 18- to 35-year-old people,” he really meant to say that we all have to take this pandemic more seriously, pandemic fatigue be damned.
Here is the good news. The governor hit on something that is doable. The state can have an influence at our institutions of higher learning where there are some built-in advantages to walling off the disease from the campus community. This is not a scheme that has to be dreamed up from whole cloth. It has already happened – and Duke University showed the rest of the collegiate world how to get it done.
Starting fall classes early back on Aug. 2 and continuing up to finals on Thanksgiving week, Duke implemented a thorough testing, tracking and surveillance program.
For Duke’s returning students, the result has been nothing short of a grand success – a relatively safe and almost normal return to the learning and the college experience – for an entire semester.
As other colleges and universities were busy closing dorms and campuses – or chasing students out of Morgantown bars – as outbreaks marred their return to school, Duke had already required their students to test before returning to campus and immediately test upon returning – and then going into isolation until testing results were produced.
And there was this, too: the “Duke Compact,” a pandemic version of an honor code agreed to by every student. The kids promised to wear a mask when in public, frequently wash their hands and socially distance. Sound familiar?
They agreed – promising on their word and honor – to avoid large gatherings, to self-isolate if instructed, to get a flu shot and to allow the use of some personal data to enhance the university’s ability to trace and track and control the spread of the disease.
The school set up more than a dozen on-campus test sites and a central laboratory based in its medical school. Its pooled testing program returned highly accurate results in 18 to 30 hours. Students who didn’t feel well had their samples tested immediately and got their results in less than a day.
Here is the kicker for Gov. Justice: With or without symptoms, every Duke student who was living on campus was being tested at least twice a week.
By semester’s end, which arrived without interruption of classes, the school had reported 267 Covid cases, according to a New York Times database, a number that wasfar less than what neighbors at the University of North Carolina (1,513) and N.C. State (1,426) reported. Lower, too, than the 1,031 Covid cases at WVU.
So, instead of blaming students, many of whom were following the letter of the law laid out for them, the adults in the room should design a strategy similar to Duke’s that would get the kids back to class on campus – and keep them safe as they crack the books.
If it has worked elsewhere, it can work, here, too.