On Thursday, the United States became the country with the highest number of COVID-19 cases, currently reported to be greater than 140,000 nationwide and increasing. Experts have noted that a possible explanation for the increased spread is the inconsistent messaging around the virus, which has led to slow change in preventative behavior meant to “flatten the curve.”
However, unlike countries such as Italy and China—both of which have comparable case numbers—there has been no nationwide shutdown. The recent government-mandated lockdowns of nonessential business in various states, including New York and California, have forced people into quarantine in an effort to limit the spread of the virus, but a nationwide lockdown would force citizens into self-isolation, impose travel restrictions, and close schools and businesses to prevent people from gathering.
A main concern for health care professionals is the need to “flatten the curve” and limit the number of new cases in order to prevent a health care system overflow, which would lead to more deaths due to a lack of resources. Medical facilities across the country are currently experiencing shortages of ventilators, masks, gloves, and even hospital space, resulting in the use of university residence halls and even makeshift tents outside of hospitals. Several medical schools have graduated their students early in order to accommodate the large influx of patients.
One central component of flattening the curve entails social distancing, a means of controlling the number of cases to keep said overflow from happening. When individuals do not practice social distancing, they put others at risk.
Experts have documented that attitudes toward preventative measures seem to come in two extremes: People either hoard supplies out of fear, resulting in empty grocery store shelves and a shortage of toilet paper, or they continue to occupy bars and public spaces because they do not think the risk applies to them, as is the case with many young people.
When COVID-19 first broke out in the United States, little information was known about the virus, and young people were informed that they had a low risk of fatality compared to those above 60. They were initially encouraged to maintain hygienic practices, but not to see the virus as a threat to their personal health. Masks and social distancing were associated with racial bias against Chinese students at Columbia and not seen as practices that should be generally implemented.
This misinformation exacerbated the current struggle to adequately inform the public of preventative measures like social distancing and the proper ways to wash your hands.
Upon returning to campus after traveling to China, Barnard students were required to self-isolate and undergo medical evaluations, even if they had not definitively been exposed to COVID-19. There was not a confirmed case of COVID-19 in the state of New York for another month.
At the same time, there was an emergence of sinophobic and racist incidents on campus. Students reported a message written in Butler Library that read “Wuhan virus isolation area,” and noted a stigma for wearing sanitary masks and self-quarantining.
Following the incident, SiQi Qin, BC ’23, told Spectator that targeting Chinese students and residents for taking extreme precautions was similar to victim-blaming, noting that her loved ones, who were then quarantined in Hubei province, were sacrificing their “own lives to prevent the spread of the virus.”
As the virus continued to spread in the United States, the University requested students not gather in large groups and get takeout from the dining halls. On March 5, many faculty members were uncertain if classes would still function, given that the University suspended “nonessential” events with more than 25 people. However, there had yet to be a complete halt to classes at this point.
“It sounds like classes aren’t considered events (or maybe they’re just essential events?), but it seems prudent for larger classes like ours to no longer meet physically,” one instructor’s email said.
After a Columbia affiliate came in contact with COVID-19, Columbia moved classes online, encouraging and later telling students to return home in an effort to prevent students from further exposure.
While some students scrambled to leave last minute, many students flocked to the South Lawn and Low Steps the day after in-person classes were canceled, while others took advantage of cheaper plane tickets and the extended spring break by traveling.
These misunderstandings about the virus raised alarms for government officials, medical professionals, and other students, particularly the immunocompromised. Dr. Steven Wallace, a professor at UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health, notes that despite popular belief, young people are at risk of contracting the virus and requiring hospitalization.
“The initial messages that came out on COVID-19 was that the highest risk group was over 70,” Wallace said. “When you’re in your twenties you might think that your grandparents who live across the country are not at risk if I get it, but we are seeing younger people both getting sick and dying, so the messaging is starting to change.”
Monica Schoch-Spana, a health researcher at Johns Hopkins University, connected the inconsistent information about the new coronavirus and its impact on young people to the delayed rate at which people reacted to the outbreak. She explained that despite the perceived low risk for certain groups, there is still a lot unknown about the virus, and this lack of knowledge may have resulted in people not changing their behavior.
“It would be important for public health officials to keep hammering home the message that we’re all in an entirely new virus, we’re all potentially at risk of infection, and there could be the possibility of more severe disease,” Schoch-Spana said. “All of us across the board should act as if we are potentially spreaders and we should all act as if people could spread it to us.”
Wallace said that a large reason people may be resistant to change is that they do not see it as a personal threat to their daily lives.
“We’re a very individualistic country: ‘If it doesn’t affect me why should I care,’” Wallace said. “That’s the challenge of public health: trying to get people to change their behavior when it can prevent something from happening versus changing their behavior after something has happened.”
An immunocompromised Columbia student was not aware that the affiliate quarantined after being exposed to COVID-19 was living in her hall. Though the affiliate later tested negative, the student and their hallmates discovered that they were in close proximity with the individual.
“It was quite shocking and terrifying finding out that you’re living on the same floor as a possible positive patient and not even being told about it,” the student said.
The student stated that even during the affiliate’s quarantine there was no standard for what behavior was appropriate. The student noticed that the quarantined individual continued to invite people over, and that the people who were potentially in contact with the affiliate were not required to quarantine.
“I think it’s just being one step behind. If [they] had contact with people they should be quarantined just in case,” the student said.
While students may tend to dwell on the challenges associated with the outbreak, experts recommend that people ultimately stay focused on the future and the end of the pandemic.
“It’s an event that is going to shape national consciousness,” Wallace said. “It will impact the lives and potentially careers of college students and adults, and looking back how we respond to this will be a good indication of our national character and how we work together as a society.”