By Fletcher Allen, Summer Bowman, Raven Madison and Whitney Sides
Photos by Sidney Smith
Last month, The University of Alabama system’s released a 22-page plan to reopen its Tuscaloosa, Birmingham and Huntsville campuses was made public.
Two weeks later on June 22, students and employees received a more comprehensive email detailing UAB’s specific plan to move forward, extending remote learning, cutting class sizes and requiring testing among all those required to work on campus.
In the time since, the number of new COVID-19 cases in Alabama has grown and the increase is steady between 600 and 1000 new cases every day and many who work and study at UAB are left wondering how reopening is going to work.
Public health experts say motivating every UAB student and employee to comply with the safety measures won’t be easy.
“What more can I say? It’s very frustrating,” said Dr. Michael Saag, a UAB epidemiologist who is a survivor of COVID-19.
“As someone who works in infectious diseases, my colleagues and I are taking care of these patients who come in with COVID and we see the numbers rising,” Saag said. “It’s demoralizing. And nobody, or very few people, seem to care.”
Dr. Saag places the blame for rising case numbers on officials for politicizing the pandemic, but also squarely on the feet of the community for not facing facts when it comes to our new reality.
“The proportion of people wearing a mask regularly in our community is 20%. If I made a 20 on an exam, I flunked,” said Saag. “If I were an animal, say a dog or a monkey, and you gave me a multiple-choice test, I think I could do better than a 20.”
Saag said he doesn’t hold out much hope for a safe reopening because of what happened to local case numbers when the state reopened in May.
“Most people came roaring back to pre-COVID life without much regard at all for the fact that the virus was still in our midst,” said Saag.
Both Saag and his director, Dr. Jeanne Marrazzo, agree that politics and lack of consistent information has made it so that college students often feel invincible and let down their guard when it comes to wearing masks and social distancing.
University officials tasked with the responsibility of mitigating risk are in a very complicated situation, according to Interim Chief Communications Advisor Jim Bakken.
As the case numbers grow, the University’s plan of action is forced to change, leaving many students and parents with questions.
“This is an unprecedented and fluid situation in which constant planning continues at a fast pace,” Bakken said.
Officials refer to the plan as “phased” and posted their online guide to re-entry online.
Phases are progressive and color-coded, beginning with limited operations and essential services only (red) and ending in a sixth phase (green) that aims for all faculty, staff and students working on campus again sometime between January and May of 2021.
Some students might be back on campus this fall, as Bakken said most classes are “anticipated to have an in-person component” as early as next semester. He encourages any students with specific safety or health concerns to reach out to their assigned academic advisor.
For the fall semester this year, all courses will take a break at Thanksgiving and students will finish the last two weeks of online instruction and final exams remotely to reduce further spread of COVID-19.
Any form of instruction involving students and faculty being on campus will involve risk, experts say, but there may be more to consider than previously thought.
“There’s no solution that is going to avoid some sort of pain and discomfort and if we go back to campus, there’s going to be infection,” said UAB Director of the Division of Infectious Diseases, Dr. Jeanne Marrazzo.
“No question, students are going to get infected and we’re going to have to figure out how to manage that both in terms of individual student care, healthcare and also just safety of the campus,” Marrazzo said.
Apart from physical distancing procedures, facial coverings, and frequent sanitation, UAB plans to offer a hybrid model of instruction and test very student who comes on campus. Those who test positive must isolate for 14 days.
Students have voiced concerns that the new guidelines might have a learning curve and come with added accountability when it comes to trusting their health to their classmates.
“People want to go back to normal, but social distancing procedures will be hard to enforce, especially in freshman classes,” Kane McCreadie, a senior majoring in history, said.
Other students are excited to return but worry if everyone on campus is up to the challenge of staying safe.
Matthew Boyagian, a senior neuroscience major, said people are still going out, but hopes they will take a measured approach.
“They’re going to have to be more cautious,” Boyagian said. “We’re going to see a complete reset of social standards.”
And as the restrictions increase, so does the uncertainty surrounding the virus itself.
“We really are operating in a data-free zone,” Marrazzo said. “We’re making it up as we go along and we can’t pretend to know the answers that we really need.”
Marrazzo said that we are learning more about the virus day by day, but there is still so much we don’t know about or how to prepare for.
For example, those who have had COVID-19 were previously thought to have acquired antibodies that protect them from getting sick again. This may not be true.
“There is some evidence in the last week that antibody production or immunity doesn’t last very long, even in people who are infected naturally,” Marrazzo said. “If that’s the case, then you really have to worry about whether people are going to be able to be reinfected.”
Both Marrazzo and Saag said lack of consistent information has made it so that college students often feel invincible and let down their guard when it comes to wearing masks and social distancing.
“I mean, the virus is here. It’s an equal opportunity infectious agent,” said Saag. “If you give it a chance to infect you, it will.”
As students familiarize themselves with the new plan for operations this fall, many wonder how the University will manage the many changes, including limiting all recreational facilities to half capacity, no buffets in the dining hall, and the lifting of the previous rule requiring all freshmen to live on campus.
Marrazzo said many often see the worst of the pandemic as abstract or far away. She also said it’s difficult for many in Alabama, including students, to grasp the scope because proper acknowledgment of the outbreak here still hasn’t taken place.
Over 900 Alabamians have died because of COVID-19 and Marrazzo said wearing a mask is an act of compassion to families who have lost someone, and a show of support to healthcare workers.
“We could do this in a responsible, respectful way that will ensure we can open things up without people unnecessarily losing their lives,” said Marrazzo. “So far, we have not seen that.”