Is an increase in the spring break in COVID-19 inevitable?
Is an increase in the spring break in COVID-19 inevitable?

Is an increase in the spring break in COVID-19 inevitable?

University students around the country participate in the annual ritual commonly referred to as Spring holiday. Many students are heading down to cities in Florida and other hot destinations to enjoy beaches and bars while socializing, which only college students can during their mid-semester break.

Over the past two years, the spring break has been marked by COVID-19. In 2020, a large part of the country was under stay-at-home orders, with colleges and universities dealing with distance learning. The students who went on spring vacation excursions were very vulnerable to infections. In 2021, many colleges canceled the spring breaktrying to prevent students from leaving their campus and then bringing the virus back to infect the university community.

Now with over 88 percent of the adult population was vaccinated with at least one doseand omicron rise in sharp declinestudents may feel empowered to enjoy the spring break as they did pre-pandemic.

Will this create an increase in new infections after the spring break?

The answer is definitely yes. The more striking question is, what will an increase now look like, given that we are now more than two years into the pandemic?

To put this in perspective, there are several headwinds and tailwinds in place to either limit or accelerate such a wave and the associated consequences.

CDC face mask guidelines: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (The CDC) recently revised their face mask guidelines, which now includes factors such as area admission rates in addition to the number of new cases and new infection rates. These guidelines, which now classify each county as low, medium, or high risk, are reactive rather than proactive, as it takes one to two weeks after becoming infected before people may need hospitalization. This means that in low-risk areas, students are likely to go without face masks. Although the personal risk to students is very small, spring break collections will definitely spur on new infections and keep the virus in circulation.

Vaccination and previous infections: The good news is that the vaccines provide protection against serious illness. Therefore, a combination of college students being vaccinated, which is likely to be given widespread campus vaccination mandates, or with prior infection, means that outbreaks are likely to be attenuated. With 18- to 29-year-old age group that has the largest percentage of cases relative to their percentage of the populationprevious infection protection is high among them.

Testing: When students return to campus, they will take infections with them. However, detecting such infections will require extensive testing and reporting, which is not available everywhere. While quick home tests are more available than before, such test results may remain unreported. Moreover, given that as many as 40 percent of infections are asymptomaticthe risk of unknown virus transmission will remain high.

With many colleges in the Northeast and Midwest located in university towns surrounded by rural areas, any combination of low vaccination rates as well as declining protection against the vaccines and previous infections can lead to new infections among the locals. The resulting increase in hospitalizations is likely to push many such counties into a higher risk rating based on the new CDC face mask guidelines.

Government agencies such as the CDC and state health authorities can provide guidance on when it is safe to relax mandates for face masks and other countermeasures. However, the virus itself always has the last word on the risks to a society and its population.

People there are immunocompromised makes sense to continue to take all necessary precautions, like those over 65 years of age. University students generally fall into a much lower risk group, and as such, they seem less vulnerable to the most harmful effects of the virus, especially in the short term.

We now know that there is no “silver bullet” in the COVID-19 risk assessment. Every action has a reaction and a consequence. The spring break will occur, infections will spread, and across the country, new cases will be brought back to campuses and their communities. No government policy can stop this phenomenon.

Every person living in an area around high schools and spring vacation destinations must decide for themselves what precautions to take. It is no longer possible to ask for protection in one size fits all.

Many have been waiting for a return to normal. Asking people to make wise decisions for themselves and the people around them is the new normal.

Sheldon H. Jacobson, Ph.D., is the founding professor of computer science and the Carle Illinois College of Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He uses his expertise in data-driven risk-based decision-making to evaluate and inform public policy.

Janet Jokela, MD, MPH, is the acting regional dean of the University of Illinois College of Medicine in Urbana-Champaign. She is an infectious disease and public health doctor.


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