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Universities are supposed to be bastions of critical thinking, reason and logic. But the COVID policies they have adopted — which have derailed two years of students’ education and threaten to upend the upcoming spring semester — have exposed them as nonsensical, anti-scientific and often downright cruel.
Some of America’s most prestigious universities are leading the charge.
At Georgetown University, fully vaccinated students are randomly tested for COVID weekly. A positive PCR test, which can detect tiny amounts of dead virus, sends asymptomatic students to a room in a designated building where they spend 10 days in confinement. Food is dropped off once a day at the door.
I spoke to several holed-up students. One told me she would sometimes call a friend to come and wave at her through the window, just to see a human face. “Everyone’s just fed up at this point,” another said. “People walk around the library and yell at you if you drink a sip of water. And it was during finals.”
Given the fact that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recently changed its quarantine period from 10 days to five, I reached out to Georgetown’s chief public health officer, Dr. Ranit Mishori. She told me that Georgetown still uses a 10-day quarantine.
Students are the lowest-risk population on planet Earth. Over the last six months, the risk of a person in the broader age group (15-24) dying of COVID or dying with COVID (the CDC does not clearly distinguish) was 0.001%. All or nearly all of those deaths were in a very specific subgroup: unvaccinated people with a medical comorbidity. But despite Georgetown’s strict vaccination, masking, testing and quarantine requirements, the university announced late last month that all events, “including meetings with visitors, will need to be held virtually or outdoors.”
see also NYU moves finals online, cancels some indoor activities due to COVID surge
At Princeton University, fully vaccinated students are not allowed to leave the county unless they’re on a sports team. They’re also testing all students twice a week, usurping the scarce testing supply from vulnerable communities for low-risk young people.
At Cornell, masks are still the rule — and even recommended outdoors. At Amherst, students must double mask if they don’t use a KN95. In nearby Boston, at Emerson College, students are tested twice a week and have stay-in-room orders. The college instructs students to “only leave their residence halls or place of residence for testing, meals, medical appointments, necessary employment, or to get mail.” Seriously.
At these institutions of higher learning and thousands more, science is supposedly held in the highest esteem. So where is the scientific support for masking outdoors? Where is the scientific support for constantly testing fully vaccinated young people? Where is the support for the confinement of asymptomatic, young people who test positive for a virus to which they are already immune on a campus of other immune people?
The data simply do not justify any of it.
According to the CDC, the risk of a fully vaccinated adult ending up in the hospital for COVID was 1 in 26,000 for the week ending Nov. 27. Who was that one person? Not a college student. One analysis of breakthrough infections found that the average age of a vaccinated person being hospitalized is 72 years, and the average age of a vaccinated person dying of COVID is 80.
The data clearly tell us that the risk of a breakthrough COVID infection resulting in severe illness is extremely rare. When it does occur, it is profoundly skewed toward septuagenarians and octogenarians.
From the beginning of this pandemic, the risk of COVID to young people has always been extremely low, a finding public-health officials have downplayed instead of acknowledged. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children have represented 0.00%-0.27% of all COVID-19 deaths.
In other words, a total of 803 American children have died from COVID or with COVID over the last two years. That’s fewer than the total deaths from both influenza and RSV infection in a typical year pre-pandemic. A recent study of children in Germany found that no healthy child between the ages of 5 and 17 died of COVID during a 15-month period when nearly all were unvaccinated.
And yet there is very much a public-health crisis facing young people that’s been created by these draconian COVID policies — the result of depriving young Americans of the basic enjoyment of life and the benefits of human connection.
A study conducted by The Jed Foundation, a nonprofit that combats suicide among young people, found that in 2020, 31% of parents said their child’s mental health was worse than before the pandemic. There has been a surge in hospital visits for self-harm, a surge that was particularly acute among adolescent girls. The Surgeon General recently declared a mental health crisis among young people globally, citing 25% of youth experiencing depressive symptoms and 20% experiencing anxiety symptoms.
Omicron’s mild touch
Last week, the CDC reported that weekly deaths in people age 18-29 decreased to zero from one in 5 million the week prior.
That’s lower than the number of deaths from car accidents, suicide and firearms in young people. So why are we imposing a kind of martial law on students to ever so slightly reduce the chance that they develop a mild illness?
For the past two years, this country has imposed extensive, and often unnecessary, restrictions on over 54 million school-age children, even though they are the least likely group to suffer serious consequences of a COVID infection. We have damaged their education, kept them from seeing human faces and treated them as vectors without a right to a normal childhood.
At the very same moment schools are getting more extreme in their COVID policies, nature has handed us what appears to be a gift. Omicron is a far milder version of COVID that is rapidly displacing the more dangerous Delta variant and conferring cross immunity. A University of Hong Kong study found that Omicron is one-tenth as infective in lung cells compared with the Delta variant, which explains why Omicron results in far less severe illness. According to South African Health Minister Dr. Joe Phaahla, only 1.7% of COVID cases were hospitalized in the second week of the Omicron-dominant wave, compared with 19% the same week of the Delta wave.
But despite all evidence, fear of Omicron is driving more harmful policies imposed on society’s lowest-risk people.
One knee-jerk reaction to the more mild Omicron virus has been to push boosters on young people, despite no supporting clinical data and serious concerns of myocarditis complications. That’s exactly why FDA’s expert advisers voted against boosting young people by a 16-2 vote on Sept. 17. (Just yesterday, the FDA ignored their recommendation and approved the Pfizer booster for kids as young as 12.)
Current data actually tip the risk to benefit analysis in favor of not boosting young healthy people. A recent Israeli study in the New England Journal of Medicine noted zero COVID deaths among double-vaccinated people 16-29 years old without a booster. You can’t lower a risk of zero any further with a booster. But the risk of myocarditis in young people is quite real.
A new study published last week by Kaiser Permanente Northwest researchers found that as many as 1 in 1,860 men 18-24 years old developed myocarditis after the second shot.
Schools like Emory, Tulane, Wake Forest and Johns Hopkins, my own university, which are requiring boosters in healthy young people, are venturing into uncharted waters. They are risking health complications in young people for the sake of beating back mild and asymptomatic infections.
Students speak out
Students from around the country have reached out to me, outraged at excessive policies imposed upon them. They were afraid to be identified in this essay for fear of retaliation. And for good reason. Students have been punished, suspended and even expelled for violations of draconian masking and socializing policies.
It’s time for them to speak out.
Students, parents and university donors should voice their concerns and ask good questions, such as: Will boosters be required every 3-6 months in perpetuity? How many healthy college students have died from COVID? If I have circulating antibodies from prior COVID illness, will the university recognize those antibodies as countries in Europe do?
Concerned citizens should challenge medical dogma with data.
It’s time to learn to live with COVID by using common-sense practices: If you’re sick, stay home. If you’re around someone vulnerable, be careful. If you’ve been exposed, wear a real, quality, N95 mask. For the young who have natural or vaccinated immunity, it’s a mild virus that will circulate for the rest of their lives.
I worked at the Georgetown hospital for five years as a resident. One crucial lesson my mentors there hammered into me was: Treat the person, not the lab result. When students return to campus later this month — as I hope they will to alleviate a worsening mental-health crisis — college administrators need to heed this essential advice.
Dr. Marty Makary is a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore and the author of “The Price We Pay: What Broke American Health Care and How to Fix It.”