College and Coronavirus

UNC Chapel Hill, NCSU and the other constituent campuses of the UNC System never had a chance to reopen successfully because they did not have the required testing (re-entry and surveillance in addition to their symptomatic and contact tracing informed testing that was in place).

The UNC system Board of Governors and System President Peter Hans and outgoing interim President Bill Roper (who was the head of the CDC from 1990-93!) told the campuses they had to open and did not need a testing program. The cost of testing required for such a huge public system is certainly a barrier, but that simply reinforces the failure of the Trump Administration’s COVID-19 response–we still do not have a national testing policy that could and should have provided the needed testing necessary to open colleges and universities as we manage the pandemic.

Lurking in the background is the degradation of the CDC, until COVID19, the premier public health authority in the World. Public Health is always political in the Harold Laswell sense of “who gets what?” but the anti-science, conspiracy theory penchant of President Trump and his administration (he talks about Qanon in nice terms for heaven’s sake) has rendered everything the CDC touches with a hint of skepticism. For example, the CDC both said re-entry testing was not needed for colleges (makes no sense), and also that UNC Chapel Hill’s plans for dormitory occupancy were too dense (does make sense).

Even with a robust testing program, there are more ways for things to go wrong than right on a college campus as the Notre Dame experience shows; the tale will begin to be told for Duke over the next week. If Duke’s huge amount of testing allows for a successful reopening, then it further underlines the need for a national testing policy/infrastructure expansion. If it does not, it will show you cannot open up in a community with fairly wide spread (Durham and Orange County). Boston College has a robust testing program and Massachusetts in one of only four States in the U.S. with a “green” for re-opening. By Labor Day, we should have some sense of whether robust testing can allow colleges to reopen successfully, in low and higher spread areas.

There were huge failures at my alma mater UNC Chapel Hill–a Chancellor and Provost not sharing a request from the local health department to delay in person classes for several weeks with the faculty, staff, and students is unconscionable. The leaders of individual UNC system campuses have operated in a purely politicized context given the complete takeover by the Republican Party of the Board of Governors and their more aggressive stance at management and hostility toward UNC Chapel Hill have been clear for some time. Chancellor Guskiewicz and Provost Blouin were in a tough spot, leading an institution that has been under assault from within the system for some time, but they have likely lost their faculty’s trust through all of this.

As a nation what a mess, what a comprehensive failure, or as my granddaddy might say, “a bad plan, poorly executed.”

About Don Taylor
Professor of Public Policy (with appointments in Business, Nursing, Community and Family Medicine, and the Duke Clinical Research Institute), and Chair of the Academic Council at Duke University . I am one of the founding faculty of the Margolis Center for Health Policy. My research focuses on improving care for persons who are dying, and I am co-PI of a CMMI award in Community Based Palliative Care. I teach both undergrads and grad students at Duke. On twitter @donaldhtaylorjr

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