how dangerous is it to open college campuses? evidence from enclosed communities at sea exposed to COVID, the us and sweden

How damaging would in-person college be for the college population? I think we have some evidence to help us sort through this issue. Namely, there are some relatively closed communities where people lived in close quarters and were exposed to COVID. We can estimate the damage. These communities are similar to colleges in that they housed people together. We also know, months later, how many people got sick and how many died. Specifically, we can look at ships where people were in close contact and got a lot of COVID.

Worst Case Scenario: The Diamond Princess is a cruise ship that was at sea early in the epidemic. People got sick and it wasn’t allowed to port for a while. The result? According to the wiki, 700 out of 3711 tested positive (18%) and 14 died (.3%). This is a population with many elderly passengers and, also according to the wiki, at least 12 of 14 fatalities were 60 or older. The Diamond Princess did not practice social distancing and, also according to the wiki, held social events like parties. I call this “worst case” because you had an elderly population, high density, and no social distancing. Also, my presumption is that the Diamond Princess medical clinic did not have access to much medical equipment, like ventilators, that could save people. In other words, this has all the conditions leading to maximal harm.

Bad but Closer to Colleges: Many naval ships experienced COVID epidemics. This is important to look into because naval have few elderly people, lots of young people, and those people tend to be in good health. Also, most naval ships have medical staff and facilities that would be better at handling severe COVID cases. Thus, it is more similar to college dorms or fraternity/sorority buildings where people live close together, are mostly young, and mostly in good health. Also, infected college students could access campus clinics. The result? The wiki list of Naval ship COVID epidemics reports that in 24 ships with known epidemics and known crew sizes, there were about 8,890 sailors and 3 fatalities (.03%). Overall, that’s one order of magnitude less than the worst case scenario of the Diamond Princess. In other words, a large boat of young people has 90% fewer mortalities than a boat full of old people.

The CDC has reported on the USS Theodore Roosevelt specifically and there is some good evidence on how social distancing measures worked. For example, the CDC reported that 1273 out of about 5000 sailors tested positive COVID (25%). In a convenience sample, the CDC reported that infection rates among those assigned to wear masks was lower (80% vs. 50%).

Now, let’s get back to the general population and compare mortality rates:

  1. THE US population: As of September, we have about 188,000 fatalities and the trend is downward in the short term. Let’s say that 220,000 people die in the US in the 2020 calendar year. Then the overall fatality rate is .06%.
  2. Worst Case Scenario (mostly elderly, close together no social distancing): .3%
  3. Bad but With Mostly Young People (young health people, some distancing): .03%.
  4. Sweden/Let’s get herd immunity/little prevention: 6,000 / 9,800,000 = .06%.

If you believe colleges are places with young, healthy people close together and some social distancing, then the Navy ship is a similar situation. These ships have a mortality rate *below* the US population as a whole (.03% vs. .06%). Also, Navy ships have a lower mortality rate below Sweden, which has chosen the “no resistance/herd immunity” path (.03% vs. .06%). If you think college campuses would be a complete disaster (like the Diamond Princess, .3% mortality), then you are assuming that colleges are not like Naval ships, not like the US population, not like the Swedish population and more like a population of partying old people. It is theoretically possible, but unlikely in my view.

In terms of policy, I say the evidence suggests that letting people back to college is no more dangerous than these situations: Naval ships – close contact, some distancing; the US – mixed density, mixed distancing; and Sweden – high urban density, no distancing. Value is subjective and maybe these cases horrify you, but as loyal readers know, I think most people would accept this level of risk if they can gain back employment and their social lives.

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Written by fabiorojas

September 15, 2020 at 8:50 pm

Posted in uncategorized

7 Responses

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  1. Of course, those young healthy sailors tend to stay on their naval ships…


    Thad Domina

    September 17, 2020 at 2:33 pm

  2. True, but if you want to shut down colleges, then you have to think about these students going to home possibly live with older parents and elderly grandparents. They will likely get jobs and have other social contacts. If you think that’s true, then keeping them away at college might be preferable.



    September 17, 2020 at 2:37 pm

  3. Oh I agree. My view is less “shut it down” a more “many colleges probably shouldn’t have opened this fall.”


    Thad Domina

    September 17, 2020 at 4:14 pm

  4. Tl;dr: If you are only looking at death rates, you aren’t paying attention to how this disease actually works. The rate of long-term complications is quite high, including among young, healthy people with low-severity cases of COVID.



    September 18, 2020 at 4:15 am

  5. […] A contrarian, data-based case for opening college campuses as normal during the pandemic. From an academic sociologist who broadly shares the political leanings and values of the median US academic, and so meant seriously rather than as trolling. I don’t entirely agree with it, but I don’t think it can be dismissed out of hand, either. […]


  6. So no one is actually teaching those young “responsible” healthy students?

    Liked by 1 person

    Joan E. Strassmann

    September 21, 2020 at 7:22 am

  7. @Fabio you do realize that lots and lots and lots of the student live at home with those parents and grandparents and see them every single day? And so keeping the college open causes INCREASED exposure to parents and grandparents? The majority of college students aren’t having some Animal House experience in a cloistered dorm. They are commuters going to community colleges or regional comprehensives while working lots of hours.



    September 21, 2020 at 1:36 pm

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