Gov. Gary Herbert announced preemptive health measures on March 12 to prevent community spread of COVID-19 in Utah. Following Herbert’s announcement, the University of Utah shifted from in-person instruction to remote learning to protect students, faculty and staff from the virus. Fast forward seven months, Utah is now experiencing one of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks in the country. When the U invited students back to campus for the fall semester, the administration promised to rely on recommendations of public health experts and metrics like case count and hospital capacity to inform university operations. Strangely, even as cases are rising and ICUs are filling up, the U has not announced any major changes to campus. To address this rise and protect our community, the U must close campus and shift to entirely remote instruction for the remainder of the fall semester.
Herbert announced a mask mandate and gathering restrictions for six counties, including Salt Lake, in response to rising case numbers. Sadly, these new restrictions are not enough to curtail infections. According to the Harvard-led COVID Suppression Guidance, stay-at-home orders are necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in Salt Lake County. While stay-at-home orders have not been announced, our university’s administration should not wait for the state to take action. The U must close campus immediately, move all classes online and ask instructors to adjust course requirements to ensure students can complete their classes remotely. Students should also be released from their on-campus housing contracts, but dorms should remain open for students unable to leave.
Early in the pandemic, public health officials asked people to stay home to “flatten the curve” in an effort to prevent healthcare systems from being overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients. With over a thousand new cases every day, Utah has failed to flatten the current curve. Unsurprisingly, as of October 16, Utah’s ICUs were 75% occupied. The ICU at the University of Utah Hospital is currently operating overcapacity. Extra beds have been set up and doctors and nurses are working overtime to provide care to patients. This strain on our healthcare system is a public health crisis that puts all Utahns at risk. Herriman resident Laurie Pratt Terry was near death after a heart attack but had to wait two and a half hours for a bed in the ICU. As a renowned medical school and the stewards of one of the state’s largest hospitals, it is unbelievable that the U has not closed campus to reduce unnecessary exposures and lighten the load on our healthcare system.
If campus closes, some worry that students may use remote learning as an opportunity to travel and may continue spreading the virus. This concern is understandable — risky behavior from college students has become a hallmark of the pandemic, however, some developmental psychologists believe this fact is indicative of mixed messaging from authorities and not necessarily of inherent selfishness. Choosing to keep campus open just to prevent some students from engaging in reckless behavior is irresponsible and puts every student at risk. Administrators should couple campus closure with an announcement clearly explaining why this action was necessary for the health of our community.
In March, the U took unprecedented action to protect our community from COVID-19 — moving more than 32,000 students to fully remote learning in less than a week. The transition from in-person classes to online learning was not seamless, but this shift undoubtedly saved lives. Despite their previous success, the U is now failing to take decisive action despite the ongoing spike in cases and ICU patients. Personally, I do not understand why. Little has changed since March except for COVID-19’s prevalence in Utah. Continuing to keep campus open will only further endanger students, faculty and staff.