The University of Georgia plans to bring students back to campus for the fall semester as COVID-19 cases rise across Athens-Clarke County and Georgia.
Although younger people with no underlying medical conditions have less risk for severe complications from COVID-19, they can still become severely ill and even die. Their decisions could have consequences for the entire population of UGA and Athens, said Dr. Drew McKown.
Relatively healthy students could pass the virus to people in the UGA community considered at an increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19 as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This includes older people and people with certain medical conditions.
“This is not going to be — when [students] return to campus — a normal college experience,” McKown said.
The Red & Black spoke with McKown, a pulmonary critical care physician at Piedmont Athens Regional Medical Center and St. Mary’s Hospital and co-ICU director at Piedmont Athens Regional, about how UGA students can help prevent the spread of COVID-19 to people at higher risk of severe illness from the disease.
“I would hope that college students could come to recognize that they have a part to play … Their decisions have consequences for others, and it may be their professors, it may be other staff on campus, it may be various people in the community.”
– Dr. Drew McKown, pulmonary critical care physician in Athens
The Red & Black: What are the best ways for UGA students to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus?
Dr. Drew McKown: The most important thing is engaging in those practices recommended by [the] CDC and all the health expertise out there to continue to engage in social distancing. So that would mean minimize large gatherings and to wear a mask. Wearing a mask in enclosed spaces and respecting a 6-foot distance will decrease the transmission from person to person and ultimately slow this epidemic.
R&B: What are possible consequences of not following those recommendations?
DM: Well, I think we’re seeing that, right? We’ve gone from a few cases earlier this year to — I don’t even know the case count now — millions, with 100,000 deaths or more in the United States alone. And the reality is that if we could do those things that would prevent the spread of this virus, we would have a dramatic decrease in the presence of this virus and I guess, hasten our return towards normalcy.
Even asymptomatic individuals have the ability to pass on this disease. Frequently college-aged or other healthy individuals who feel well may go to a bar or have a family gathering or what have you, not wear a mask because they feel fine and manage to spread [COVID-19] to many people. And while they themselves don’t see the consequences ‘cause they were healthy, ultimately those who catch the virus from them could be hospitalized or worse.
R&B: What challenges, if any, do college students face interacting with a lot of different people and a lot of different places?
DM: There’s a desire for college students to socialize in a way that has historically been thought of as ... part of the rite of passage of college. And while those are important parts of life, right now this pandemic has taken over the world, taken over the United States, and has completely altered the way of life.
I would hope that college students could come to recognize that they have a part to play in that as well. It’s a challenge because as a young individual who’s generally healthy, they may look at it and say, ‘Well it’s not a big risk to me.’ But their decisions have consequences for others, and it may be their professors, it may be other staff on campus, it may be various people in the community ... who are at greater risk, or they may take it back and pass it on to their parents. So I would urge the college students — and everybody — to recognize that whether they have symptoms or not, wearing a mask and engaging in social distancing is an important part of life right now.
R&B: How can COVID-19 affect college-aged people individually, even if they are relatively healthy?
DM: Well, I think we’re learning all the time about what this virus does. While in aggregate younger populations are less likely to become severely ill, certainly there are cases out there of young people in their 20s, in their teens, and children who have gotten this disease, have been hospitalized with it, have died from it. People have described prolonged, generalized malaise, muscle aches and pain, and generalized just kind of not feeling well that has persisted sometimes for weeks or months afterwards. Part of the challenge is that people say, ‘Oh I don’t have it,’ but the symptoms are myriad, and the long-term consequences are unknown.
R&B: How can on-campus residents keep themselves and others safe in their dorms?
DM: I honestly, personally, would treat any building … outside of my personal room in which I was indoors a place where a mask should be worn if I were a college student. So in the dorm, I would wear a mask unless I was in my personal room, and if everybody would do it, it would substantially slow the spread of COVID.
I know that people don’t like them [masks], I know that they’re uncomfortable, but you know, people didn’t like seat belts either. We wear them. There are some things in life that we have to do even if they can be a little uncomfortable. Frankly, most people get used to it, and with time, I don’t find it overly burdensome.
R&B: More broadly, how could the university resuming classes affect the spread of the virus in Athens?
DM: I mean certainly, you’re taking a large population of adults from across the state and other states and bringing them into one place, and you’re mixing them. So I think that there’s a strong potential and risk for spread of a respiratory virus, particularly amongst people who don’t even recognize that they have it. I think that there’s a potential risk for outbreak like there’s been seen at a number of universities in the spring and like we’ve seen just in the gathering of athletes across different universities so far this summer. I think it can be prevented if people wear masks and they actually maintain appropriate social distancing measures.
R&B: How could UGA resuming classes, more specifically, affect the Athens hospital system?
DM: I mean I think that the reality is, if there becomes a large ... outbreak, then certainly, the university is served by the Piedmont Athens, by St. Mary’s hospital systems, as a reality of geography. We serve them both during the summer when school’s not in session, and we’ve always served them during the school year when they are in session. If there were a large outbreak then that would potentially, you know, lead to more hospitalizations. I think that it would depend on how severe the outbreak was.
R&B: Do St. Mary’s and Piedmont have the capacity to deal with something like that when there’s already a pretty large spike?
DM: I think that the hospital capacity varies on a day-to-day and week-to-week basis, so it’s just too hard to know. If people appropriately engage in practices to prevent the virus transmission, then I don’t think it will be an issue. I don’t anticipate our becoming a situation like described in New York. I think it’s just a matter of seeing what, seeing where things are.