When thousands of Northwestern University students return to Evanston this fall, they may bring an unwelcome guest – COVID-19.

Medical experts say it’s inevitable.  The only question is how big the increase will be.

Dr. Ernest Wang, Chief of Emergency Medicine at NorthShore University HealthSystem, which includes Evanston Hospital, says, “We have to presume it’s highly likely we will get some uptick.”

Ike Ogbo, Health Director for the City of Evanston, says, “We are preparing in anticipation of that.”

And the University itself has this warning on the school’s website: “We anticipate there will be cases of COVID-19 on campus despite our best efforts to control the virus, and the University cannot guarantee a virus-free environment. Students and family should consider this as they decide to return to campus.”

There are two primary problems facing a college town such as Evanston.

First, colleges put lots of people into small spaces, such as classrooms and dorm rooms.

And second, college-age students are among those least likely to follow safety guidelines such as wearing masks and avoiding crowds.

Dr. Wang says it was “frightening” to see what happened in Florida and Texas, where young people partied and packed “the riskiest places to go,” bars and indoor restaurants. The COVID infection rate in those states has skyrocketed.

Northwestern plans major steps to try to minimize the potential spread of coronavirus among its 20,000 undergraduate and graduate students.

Most classes, the school says, will be held all or partly online. Social distancing will be required for courses which do meet in person. Masks will be mandatory for faculty, staff and students in classroom buildings.

College students will also have to get used to another kind of test besides those end-of-quarter final exams … coronavirus tests. Northwestern says all students must have a negative COVID test before attending in-person activities or classes. Returning students will also be given a kit which includes masks, hand sanitizer and a thermometer.

And the dormitory experience will be different, to say the least. “All students in residence halls will be tested upon arrival,” the University’s website explains. There will be a follow-up test for those students in about a week, and “recurring testing throughout their time on campus.”  

Other dorm changes: Most rooms will be singles, to reduce close contact between those who would have been roommates. And the requirement that first and second year students live on campus has been dropped, meaning more off-campus residents.

Those residents will be virus-tested as well. Northwestern says, “We will pursue a random, ongoing sampling testing strategy for faculty, staff and students who do not live in residence halls.”

While students living off-campus will have fewer restrictions and less supervision than those living in university residence halls, Dr. Wang says off-campus residents might actually be less likely to catch the virus. That’s because those living in apartments are less likely to share common areas such as a dormitory lounge, even if that lounge has chairs six feet apart. “Common areas are the problem,” he says.

Parties are the problem too. And parties are as much a part of college life as Freshman English. “Kids,” Dr. Wang says, “will let down their mask guard.”  Talking close to each other without masks, perhaps loudly, spreads the droplets which can pass the virus, especially if “someone coughs or sneezes.” Even something as simple as “sharing a bowl of chips and dip” can be a way to share COVID as well. 

The size of the COVID uptick in Evanston depends not only on student behavior, but also on how many students actually return to campus. Some may decide to stay home if their classes are all remote. 

Combine that with the risk of getting COVID and the 20,000 student number may drop, but nobody knows by how much yet.

At this point, Northwestern is not requiring domestic students to self-isolate before school starts, although the school “strongly encourages” a 14-day quarantine before coming to campus.

And if there is a large outbreak on campus, quarantining could be another problem. Northwestern says it is making a sincere effort to provide isolation if needed, but the University says it only has a limited number of quarantine sites.

“This could be a significant constraint if the situation required a number of isolation beds at any one time,” the University states. If there is a major outbreak, Chicago-area students living in dorms might be required to quarantine at home.

Currently, Evanston has a fairly low level of new COVID cases, with a positive test rate of only about 2%.  When students return, both the number of cases and the positive rate will likely go up. The big unknown is how much. Dr. Wang says, “The general consensus is we’ll need to expect some transmission,” in large part because asymptomatic students will be “the vehicle which walks around with the virus.”

The city’s Health Department is working with Northwestern on strategies to hold down any spread and “will continue to hold people, businesses, and Northwestern … accountable to ensure safe practices are put in place,” says Ogbo.

And the University, despite all of its changes in health practices and policies, says it really comes down to everyone’s “individual behavior.”  18-year olds may think they are invincible.  They are not, and they may also unknowingly spread the disease to friends, teachers and family members.  “If you do not take this seriously,” the school stresses, “you jeopardize all of Northwestern’s community.”

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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