Herd Immunity on Campus

As university students undergo their third semester of the COVID-era, a lot has been learned about the virus. I am senior at Boston College, studying marketing and entrepreneurship. To be completely honest, senior year has been quite dreadful. We live on the sixth floor of a completely full dorm building, in a six-man room. Some classes are completely online, some are completely in person, and some are hybrid. Ten days ago, my direct roommate, the one who shares my bedroom, was called by the university’s contact tracing team. He was in contact the day prior with a friend of ours who tested positive that morning. While on the call, they told him to pack his bags for a two-week stay at Hotel Boston, a motel down the street. Jared, one of my other roommates, was also in contact with her and would be sharing the minivan over to the motel. This has become the reality on campuses around the country: a sort of Soviet-style secret police that comes in the middle of the night to whisk you away, and anonymous hotlines to snitch on friends.

While talking with some friends the other night who had just tested positive, I quickly realized that their attitude toward the virus was very different than mine. For them, it was only a matter of time before they became sick. High-risk behavior, such as attending sporting events and crowded bars, was worth any negative downsides that could come with the disease. Once someone has come to terms with the fact they will likely catch COVID, they suddenly start to throw precautions out the window. Of course, the problem is that catching COVID as a university student will likely affect innocent passersby more than yourself, especially as hospitals and contact tracing protocols on campus reach capacity. In fact, many students nonchalantly joke and tell stories about the time they were sick. A junior in the business school, for example, bragged about going to the college football championship and catching COVID there as his introductory fun fact to the entire class! People like this assume everyone is on the same page as them regarding the pandemic. People like this see the pandemic as happening to them, as opposed to us. I’d go as far as implying that people like this actually want to catch the virus, so they can ‘prove it wrong’ somehow. For people like this, herd immunity is the half-assed solution they are looking for.

Interestingly, out of all my friends who were in contact with the positive COVID case last Monday, none of them came down with the virus. Although the dreaded term “Herd Immunity” has been politicized to mean “do nothing about the virus”, it appears there are small subsets of the population in which this concept is indeed working. Almost every one of my friends has tested positive for COVID within the past year, and since then they have been able to enjoy varying degrees of immunity. I caught the virus in March, however, and it is unclear how long immunity can last. For college kids, this immunity instills a false sense of security and immortality, however. And while previously-infected people can’t continue spreading the virus, we now know that they can catch it again and become sick. It is also unclear whether immunity develops in everybody, potentially putting some populations at greater risk.

As my classmates and I prepare to graduate in only three months, I understand why people are acting the way they are. For many, it feels like senior year was taken away. One grand year of partying to top them all off — something that has been granted to them almost as a birthright — was replaced with a year of nights in, playing board games with roommates. Those who are unable to adapt to such a boring lifestyle seek out high risk scenarios in which they are more likely to catch and spread the virus. In a desperate attempt to recreate the experiences they are missing out on, many people go to bars two or three nights per week. Unfortunately, it’s not the same when you can’t visit friends at other tables, dance, or loiter without being noticed.

I believe this issue stems from a lack of maturity, because many of these people exude a confident entitlement about partying. They are approaching the pandemic with the attitude that they are just below the cut-off age of having to take it seriously. They are banking on herd immunity and the vaccine to come in and save the day, instead of doing their fair share in saving the day today. For those of us who have to share dining halls, libraries, nearly-full classrooms, and even dorm rooms with them, it’s simply unfair. While we can be as safe as possible outside the dorm, you can also catch COVID in your own shower as a result of your roommate’s high risk behavior. And this doesn’t even speak to the millions of immunocompromised Americans working in-person jobs with no alternative, who are forced to interact with pandemic-deniers throughout the daily course of business. The college kids who become brief super spreaders often get contact-traced, experience light or no symptoms, then return to dorms with stories of loneliness and isolation during quarantine. Meanwhile, the people they potentially infected may become far sicker, and may live or work in a high-density environment.

For people like this, herd immunity is the half-assed solution they are looking for.

Herd immunity may be the reason why you didn’t become sick after being exposed to COVID, but it is hardly an effective strategy for ending the pandemic. When people claim herd immunity is a promising defense mechanism, what they mean to say is “ME immunity.” It is impossible to reach a critical mass of immune persons without the development of unexpected side effects, such as virus mutation. In addition, millions of people would have to die before we would even be at a point of general immunity. Standing for herd immunity is actually a guised support of the rugged individualism characteristic of America. Welcome to the land of the free, where individual self-destruction is our one remaining patriotic obsession.

Journalist, entrepreneur and student - Boston College, University of Otago. Adventurer and consultant for conducting business in Asia. Ethereum tips: muse.eth

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