College campuses are COVID-19 cesspools, right?
That’s been the conventional wisdom for most of the pandemic.
In May, a New York Times survey confirmed it. Even though many American universities had gone online-only since the pandemic began, 700,000 coronavirus cases were linked to campuses.
Today, the conventional wisdom couldn’t be more wrong.
Why? Simple. Vaccination rates on most college campuses far exceed those of the general population.
In fact, colleges as microcosms of the larger community are arguably the best evidence we have of the power of vaccines.
To put it plainly, almost nobody is getting COVID at universities that have high vaccination rates.
How Successful Have Colleges Been?
However, positivity rates at universities that have mandated vaccines are a small fraction of that.
At Atlanta’s Emory University, the campus positivity rate over the past ten days stands at 0.11% for students and 0.00% for faculty and staff.
In New Haven, Conn., Yale University’s seven-day positivity rate for students is lower at 0.065.
Across the country in Palo Alto, Calif., Stanford University’s seven-day positivity rate is better yet, at 0.05 for students.
In other words, the country’s positivity rate is 100 times greater than Stanford’s, 77 times Yale’s, and 45 times Emory’s.
What’s the Difference?
To paraphrase James Carville, it’s the vaccine, stupid.
More than 95% of students, faculty, and staff at Yale, Emory, and Stanford have been vaccinated.
The University of Miami, where I teach, is another good case study. Prevented by Florida law from mandating vaccines for students, it has enforced strict indoor masking, testing, and prevention. Also, employees must be vaccinated.
Still, about 90% of residential students and 95% of UM's faculty and staff have gotten their shots. The positivity rate is 0.4%, way below national and local rates.
Tale of Two Types of Universities
Some states have especially lax rules on vaccinations and mandates. Texas is among those that have gone further, with Gov. Greg Abbott issuing an executive order that effectively bans employers from issuing COVID vaccine mandates.
The consequences can be seen at Texas A&M University, where vaccines are optional for everyone and students reportedly rarely wear masks in class.
The university does not publish vaccination rates, but national and local trends make it safe to assume they are lower than at the other institutions cited, but higher than the surrounding community.
Look at the difference with the other universities. The positivity rate at A&M for the semester stands at 4.2% (although it was 1.2% for the most recent week). The university has averaged about 50 active cases of COVID over the past week, a far higher percentage of its population than at UM, Emory, Stanford, or Yale.
Still, A&M is doing better than most of the country and the surrounding community.
Are Universities Reaching Herd Immunity?
Whether reaching herd immunity to COVID is possible is a subject of much scientific debate.
Originally, scientists thought we could reach herd immunity when approximately 70% of the population was vaccinated. The more contagious delta variant upended that prediction, with some scientists now believing the country will need to reach 90%.
Many universities have achieved that number, leading to rising, but guarded optimism.
“We’re on target,” says Professor Erin Kobetz, vice provost for research at UM. “At a campus like the University of Miami, which is open and located in a very transient metropolitan area, I think it’s hard to ever claim herd immunity. The university is integrated into the community and community rate and risk influences what occurs on our campus.”
However, as Kobetz adds, with the vaccination of so many people “you are creating conditions where people who can’t or won’t be vaccinated are safer.”
So, What Does the Future Hold?
Many universities are already discussing relaxing some of their COVID restrictions, but most are proceeding cautiously.
As Kobetz says, “There’s tremendous responsibility when you’re worrying about the health and welfare of a university community and especially our students whose parents entrust us to care for them.”
UM and other universities also remain concerned over how new variants could lead to new surges, and that travel over Thanksgiving and Christmas could increase transmission rates.
Whether that happens or not, universities are teaching the rest of the country a very clear lesson: Vaccines work, and those who are resisting the shots are doing themselves, their families, and their country a disservice.
Cover photo: Masked students walk across the Fate Bridge over the University of Miami's Lake Osceola with the Donna E. Shalala Student Center in the background. (University of Miami)
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