Post #995: William and Mary, off to a charmingly mediocre start this semester

Posted on February 5, 2021

My daughter is due to return to William and Mary this weekend, so it’s time for me to start focusing on colleges again, starting with the COVID-19 situation at W&M.

As an aside, she’s taking a whole-house humidifier with her, for her apartment suite.  I just happened to have a spare one around, new in the box, owing to the analysis of Post #894.  In addition to the two that I’m currently running in my house. 

And if you don’t want to bring up COVID, you can stick with the idea that humidifiers are good for your skin.  Even though Virginia has mild winters, in the grand scope of things, winter indoor air here is still too dry for good skin heath.  For example, current conditions at Dulles Airport (41F, 67% relative humidity) would translate to about 25% relative humidity for indoor air at 68F.  That’s less than the  40%-60% indoor relative humidity that you should ideally maintain.

And at first blush, the COVID numbers are William and Mary for the Spring 2021 semester look awful, compared to last semester.

They ended last semester with a total of 67 cases on-campus, and screened out a handful (I seem to recall 10) in pre-move-in screening.  This semester, by contrast  — before the entire student body has even moved in — they’ve already had 50 cases emerge on-campus, after screening out 58 cases in pre-move-in-testing.  (That’s as of COB 2/4/2021).

I’ve heard rumors that this can be attributed to fill-in-the-blank sports team.  Which certainly may contribute.  But certainly is not the full explanation, with 58 screened out in pre-move-in testing.

But you have to keep in mind that Virginia looks pretty awful compared to the fall of last year.  As does most of the rest of the U.S.

The question is whether or not this current high rate just reflects the prevalence in the community.  Virginia, and the U.S. as a whole, both have a whole lot more new COVID cases / 100,000 / day now than they did in the fall.  So Job 1 needs to be to see how the currently observed rate of cases/ 100,000/ day for the W&M student population compares to the rate in the community, for Virginians of that age, as of (say) January 2021.  (Not all students are in-state, but Virginia’s COVID rate is very middle-of-the-road for the U.S.)

This is essentially an update of the analysis that I did last year, showing that my daughter was actually less likely to catch COVID while on campus than she would have been if she had remained in the community (Post #878).

For a bit of perspective, I did that prior analysis at a time when there was a lot of hysteria about college students returning to campus.  Lots and lots of news coverage, and (of course) virtually all of it bad.  Campuses had to shut down due to rampant stupidity spread of COVID via parties.  And so on.  Right on up to how dangerous it was for students to return home.  (Or not, in our case, Post #898).

All the while, colleges themselves identified next-to-no risk of transmission in college classes.  At least, none that anyone could measure.  “What’s utterly clear is that we have no evidence of transmission inside the classroom,” said Daniel Diermeier, chancellor of Vanderbilt University, …”.

To a close approximation, for the non “high-contact” populations (e.g., excluding student athletes), college (outside of parties) does not appear very dangerous.  It’s the colleges that couldn’t or wouldn’t prevent student parties that ended up with high spread and (in some cases) shutdowns.

And, really, I hate to be that guy, but that’s what the evidence suggests for  schools more generally, as this reliable source on infectious disease information suggests based on available scholarly work.)  Key quote, regarding the experience of all in-person K-12 education in North Caroline so far, during the COVID pandemic:  ” … No cases of in-school child-to-adult spread were reported.”

Yeah.  Easy for me to say, with no kids in K-12.  And not a teacher.  But as far as I can tell with this cursory review, the evidence is as the CDC director has characterized it.  If you take precautions, don’t pack the classrooms, wear masks, and so on, K-12 schools don’t appear that risky.  And that’s of-a-piece with what has been observed for colleges, ex-party.

That was then, this is now, and now there’s no news coverage of college students returning to campus.  I’m not sure I’ve seen a single article on college students returning to campus.  That’s how much things have changed.  Maybe we’ve just found better things to worry about.

So, what was the rate of new cases / 100,000 / day for 21-to-30-year-olds in Virginia in January?  For the month of January, that age group had more than 23,000 new cases, or roughly 3.5 times the rate when I looked at this last semester.  That averages to 788 new cases per day, for a rate of 70 new cases / 100,000 per day, for the 21-30 age group, for Virginia, for January 2021.

The number of person-days of on-campus living has to be estimated from the move-in plans posted by William and Mary.  (And I just divided total undergrads by four to divide them into classes.)  When I do that, and do the math, I come up with the following table:

And so, as was the case last year, students seem to be coming to the campus with a COVID-19 infection rate that is close to the Virginia community rate.  The rate of new COVID cases observed at W&M so far is completely normal.

And then you’d think, with living in close quarters, you’d see an increase above that.  But W&M is pretty strict about COVID hygiene.  And monitoring (e.g., they monitor their sewer system in numerous places, and test campus residents on an ongoing basis.)

And I mean strict.  Upon returning home for winter break, my understanding is that many W&M student — my daughter included — went weeks before they finally began to feel normal about leaving their bedroom without a mask on.  It was drilled into them that completely.   Which is just what I want to hear.

And so, contrary to what you might expect, for the Fall 2020 semester, as the semester progressed, on-campus cases fell lower and lower below the level you would expect at the average community new-infections rate.  Like so:

And in the end, that’s my standard of performance for W&M this year.  The issue isn’t about the number of new cases they discover on campus at the start of the semester.  As with last semester, that appears to be roughly what you’d expect at the prevailing community rate.  My standard of performance is that they do at least a good a job of suppressing new cases, over time, as they did last semester.

I want to see this semester’s graph look as good or better than last semester’s graph.  I’ll update this from time to time to see how they are doing.

And in the end, when you step back from it, this emphasizes that it’s the college, and not the self-selection of the student body, that’s generating that positive result.  It’s not that W&M students have an unnaturally low rate of infections.  To the contrary, they appear charmingly mediocre in that regard.  It’s that W&M policies suppress new infections as time goes on.  It’s hard to ask more than that.





I guess it’s time to revisit the COVID prevalence rate at Virginia colleges.