As the Thanksgiving holiday approaches, college campuses across the country will empty out. Tens of thousands of students will head home for the break, and public health experts fear mass travel and indoor gatherings could spark a super spreading of the coronavirus.
Within days of returning to campus this fall, Brianna DeWall contracted the coronavirus.
“We went out to party, and with all my friends, got it,” recounted the Oklahoma State University junior. “So, we're assuming someone at that party had it and didn't know.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the return to college campuses in August and September coincided with a 55 percent increase nationally of COVID-19 cases in young adults ages 18 to 22.
Next week, DeWall is headed home for the holidays, but she plans to get tested before she travels.
“I will be flying, so I feel like that's a precaution I should take,” said DeWall.
While her school isn’t requiring mandatory exit testing, other schools are.
Penn State is offering free, voluntary exit tests. The University of Michigan has made exit testing mandatory, and New York State’s university system is also mandating a negative test result for all of its 140,000 students before they leave campus.
“Some people may get a test that's not going to decrease the risk to zero, but it is going to decrease the risk substantially,” said Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar with the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
Dr. Adalja warns that without extra precautions like frequent testing, mask-wearing, social distancing, and self-quarantining ahead of the holiday, the risk of community spread is increased.
“It is going to be a major challenge when you have your student body moved from campus back home and come back on campus because that's likely to introduce more levels of infection,” he said.
Earlier this year, researchers at Ball State University tracked 7.5 million students at more than 1,300 universities and concluded that thousands of college students may have picked up COVID-19 while at densely-packed spring break destinations, only to return to infect others with the virus.
Some schools like DeWall’s are not having students return to campus until January and have canceled spring break. But once again, testing is voluntary.
“I think we should have to get tested before we come back,” said DeWall. “I think it's very careless that they aren't requiring us to get tested before we go home.”
The CDC hasn’t issued any specific COVID-19 guidance on colleges and break, and while the American College Health Association encourages testing, it stops short of calling for it to be mandatory.
“Colleges we know have been hot spots for infection, especially with off-campus activity,” said Dr. Adalja. “So, I do think this is going to be particularly challenging to accomplish.”