‘If there’s one big party, we’ll halt the whole semester’: Chief Health Officer discusses risk factors of social activities

Friday, August 21, 2020 - 3:52pm

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Design by Ben Korn and Lizzy Rueppel

Though schools like University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that attempted a form of in-person instruction ended up moving online after influxes of COVID-19 cases, the University of Michigan is moving forward with its in-person plans. A “public health-informed” fall semester is set to begin on Aug. 31. Approximately 70 percent of the University’s classes will be online, according to an email sent by University President Mark Schlissel earlier this month, and students are being welcomed back into dorms.

The Daily sat down with the University’s Chief Health Officer Preeti Malani to discuss what activities students can safely participate in, as well as how the University can succeed where other institutions have failed. 

Malani said the University has thorough plans to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, but whether the University goes completely remote is ultimately dependent on student behavior. 

“We have a lot of detailed plans around quarantine and contact tracing, and we’re set up better than a lot of schools in that way,” Malani said. “But if everyone comes here and just decides, ‘I don’t care. I miss my friends. You know, screw it, I’m just gonna go and do whatever I want,’ then I think it’s really gonna fall apart quickly… this is really going to come down to students.” 

As Schlissel has noted previously, Malani emphasized finding the right balance between preserving the University experience and the educational benefits students get from being on campus with preventing the spread of COVID-19. 

Malani encouraged socially distanced, outdoor activities, saying they can improve mental health. 

“Going golfing is a great thing to do because there’s that togetherness and camaraderie,” Malani said. “Just like going for a walk in the Arb is great and like laying in a hammock and reading your book. These are great things. Sitting in a room is not great. You won’t get COVID sitting in your room, but you will get other things sitting in your room. And it’s a balance. I mean, you will have other health implications of being isolated, and loneliness is a problem.”

Malani ranked the activities on a scale of low, medium and high risk. Other items on the low-risk level include grocery shopping, walking in downtown Ann Arbor with a mask or studying in the now socially-distanced libraries. Eating in a dining hall, playing pick-up basketball or sitting on a friend’s porch she considers medium risk.

Malani said outside activities that would be low risk can easily turn medium or high risk if people don’t follow social distancing measures, such as keeping six feet of space between one another and wearing a mask. She noted that alcohol can impair judgment and make maintaining proper distance more challenging. 

“Drinking outside of the Brown Jug — medium, small group, space out, you’re fine,” Malani said. “... I would say the same thing about being on your front lawn playing beer pong and things. It’s honestly not high risk. The issue is, as you know, is if you are not in control of yourself, then you have trouble socially distancing.”

In terms of high-risk activities, Malani listed indoor house parties of any size, large outdoor house parties and going to inside bars. 

“A small house party inside is high risk,” Malani said. “I would not recommend it under any circumstance right now. I think indoors is like your family unit.”

She added that engaging in activities like hooking up with strangers or smoking come with significant health risks without considering COVID-19, and those risks only increase when the virus is factored in. 

“So, Juuls and bongs are not good for you,” Malani said. “They’re bad, especially when we have a serious lung infection. So, I would say high risk, especially sharing these because it’s your respiratory secretions, right? I say high risk for hooking up with friends or strangers too, and noting that COVID is one of many risks with that.”

Ultimately, Malani said she hopes students will follow all the necessary precautions and see their friends in safe ways, but if not, the University is ready to transition entirely online. 

“I really want to believe that our students are going to do better than some of the ones at the other schools, but I don’t know,” Malani said. “I don’t know that we’re that different from UNC and Notre Dame in terms of our students. So, if there’s one big party, we’ll halt the whole semester because there will be a bunch of transmissions … so for the time being, do stuff but do it in small numbers.”

Daily News Editor Emma Stein can be reached at enstein@umich.edu.

Correction: Specific businesses have been removed from the graphic to reflect that these risks apply to all businesses.