This week I’ve been focusing on climate change, between my book and the new IPCC report. That was what I planned to work on, along with dealing with multiple family crises and fine-tuning my fall seminars. But COVID just won’t let me do it, and so now I fire up the blog engines to look ahead to what fall 2021 classes might look like.
I’ll summarize some recent pandemic developments here in some detail, then add forecasting notes. I hope readers feel comfortable sharing thoughts and stories in comments. You can use the contact page to reach me directly, if you don’t want to go public.
The reason for my sudden switch between catastrophes? Things… now seem to be getting out of hand. We started summer 2021 with high hopes, as the number of people getting amazing vaccines was growing towards herd immunity and president Biden spoke of July 4th as an independence from COVID day. Colleges and universities planned on finally returning to in-person education.
Then that happy image began to get more complicated.
In the United States vaccination rates fell and barely half the population was fully treated. Local and national politicians politicized public health to new heights. Around the world the Delta variant swept in and ignited fast new waves of infection. Then reports and research started questioning just how effective these vaccines are against the new strain. The Centers for Disease Control backtracked on its May masking recommendations. It all felt more than a little like very early 2020.
Then over the past week a whole series of COVID pandemics suggest a crisis out of control. To wit:
- Delta infections are soaring in parts of the world. The World Health Organization numbers 203,944,144 confirmed cases globally. This seems likely to worsen.
- It looks like Delta is able to defeat current vaccines more readily than its predecessors to some degree. Reports and research are all over the map here (here’s one sample article), so it’s hard to determine the precise degree of relative weakness, but we know that vaccinated people can be infected, get sick, and transmit Delta in significant numbers. Vaccines still protect us well from serious illness, injury, and death.
- Being in a highly vaccinated population is no longer a guarantee of COVID safety.
- There’s talk that herd immunity is impossible.
- Some American counties are hitting or overrunning hospital capacity.
- Various ideas about booster shots and the need for new vaccines are in the air.
- Delta is bad, but the virus keeps mutating, of course, so there are fears of post-Delta strains. (cf the SAGE report)
- Governors are fighting with local officials over mandates.
- Anti-vaxxers may be becoming more active. An anti-vax German nurse may have injected thousands with simple saline instead of the COVID vaccine. French vaccine centers were defaced, presumably by those opposed to vaccines.
- There is rising dissatisfaction with the CDC, and not just from partisan grounds. People are questioning their communication strategy.
And now? August 12, 2021, I pull down these visualizations from 91-DIVOC. Let’s start with global infections:
The United States, a world antivax leader, is now taking off with infections.
Let’s break it down by states:
Florida, Texas, California and running away with infections. But those are populous states. Let’s normalize cases by state population and see how things look:
Now Louisiana is the leading disaster.
Those graphs describe infections. What about deaths? That’s a lagging indicator, but a couple of months with Delta might have an effect:
Deaths overall are rising, even with high numbers of people over 70 vaccinated. According to the CDC, COVID has so far killed 616,459. That’s an undercount, most likely. Total infections stand at 36,125,176, or a little over 10% of the population; definitely an undercount. In contrast, CDC counts 353,205,544 vaccine doses injected, more than one for each person living in the United States.
Anecdotally, I am hearing horror stories and resignation from people across America. A former student, now a medical doctor, describes many staff and physicians refusing to get vaccinated while local hospitals reach their breaking point. My wife worked as a contact tracer during an earlier pandemic wave; now she’s been hired by a county public health agency to encourage workers in small businesses to get vaccinated. Academics tell me of their dread and anxiety, as well as their sense of being betrayed by public officials and campus administrators.
In my field, higher education, responses are all over the map. Some campuses mandate vaccines while others do not. Some require masking; others no. Over the past 24 hours:
- The University of Mississippi set up space for patient overflow from nearby hospitals.
- The University of Wisconsin battled that state government about who has masking mandate/ban authority. Cleveland State defied the state of Ohio and required vaccinations for students living in residence halls.
- Stanford University is requiring vaccines *and* testing for its entire population.
- The University of Texas-San Antonio announced it would start fall classes online.
- There are many stories of students buying and selling fake vax cards. (one example)
- University of Iowa faculty request mandatory vaccination and masking.
- Texas A&M is holding a drawing for free tuition to students who show proof of vaccination.
- Louisiana State University requires masking but not vaccination.
- The University of Texas-Austin estimates around 200 students will hit campus in a few weeks already infected. As far as I can tell that campus has neither a vaccine nor a mask mandate. They are requiring students to show proof of negative COVID testing in order to get dorm room keys.
- A Chronicle of Higher Ed reporter notes that with campuses planning on full complements of students, it’ll be harder to have everyone socially distance.
- One tenured University of California-Davis professor vowed to take his classes online if the public health situation worsened:
As of now, only 686 campuses require vaccines, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education’s tracker. That about 15% of the total. Put another way, a supermajority of American colleges and universities have deliberately chosen not to mandate vaccines.
So what might fall semester look like, starting in a few weeks?
There seem to be several conflicting tones out there. The rising worries I mentioned above are certainly within academia. The desire to return to fall 2019 is also present, a kind of determination mixed with stoic optimism.
A year and a half ago I generated three scenarios for fall 2020. They were:
- The Post-Pandemic Campus. Face to face learning, as if the pandemic had moved on.
- COVID Fall. Mostly or entirely online as a public health measure.
- Toggle Term. Switching between 1+2 as campus leaders assess infection numbers.
The Wall Street Journal did a great video on these scenarios.
The reality of fall 2020 bore them out pretty well. A chunk of colleges and universities opted for the Post-COVID Campus model. Another group ran with COVID Fall. And a good number flipped the toggle, even multiple times during the term.
I think each of these scenarios is now on the table. Quietly, most of the time, but in people’s minds.
I’m not sure what proportion of American academia will pick each scenario over the course of fall term. We know that our population generally prefers the Post-COVID Campus – i.e., most prefer in-person education. On the other hand, how many institutions will forego revenue, possibly outsource tech, and choose COVID Fall, even in the face of faculty and staff dislike? The Toggle Term: almost no campuses announce they are considering this openly until the crisis is upon them. But maybe administrations will think their communities are experienced enough to accept that maneuver.
In addition to those three scenarios from early 2020, campuses came up with options I didn’t forecast. One is hybridizing among the three scenarios, as with HyFlex classes (which combine in-person and online presence) or splitting a campus population evenly between Post-COVID Campus and COVID Fall. Kim and Maloney’s Low-Density University is a great account of these and other strategic choices from last year. The Openings, a Georgetown publication I helped with, is also a fine source. And now we have many contours for strategy which we didn’t have in August 2020, including vaccines and improved therapies.
What else might we expect?
Political tensions between academics and governments could escalate. We already see this in Wisconsin. Think of faculty and staff speaking out in public, people assembling petitions, student protests, governors calling on police to enforce policies, etc.
We could see pro- and anti-vax tensions escalate. Already a good number of people blame antivaxxers for Delta’s outbreak. Some enjoy schadenfreude when antivaxxers get sick or die. Meanwhile some of the Q-anon folk who survived the great disappointment of Trump’s loss have turned to vaccine conspiracies, which could lead to violence from or against them.
Many academics may just soldier on, exhausted and hardened by nearly two years of this horror. Historically we know pandemic survivors describe being increasingly inured to suffering and death; perhaps we will accept more human damages as the price of conducting academic work. On the flip side, faculty and staff resentment of senior administration could burst out into no-confidence votes, bad morale, quitting, protests, strikes, or even physical conflict.
We could also experience panics in various forms if long-suffering people feel betrayed by authorities and/or that the situation is spiraling out of control.
Alternatively, there are ways things could turn out less badly. Delta could burn through populations quickly, given its high R0 rate. Successor strains could be weaker. And this moment’s dread, combined with social pressure, could drive more vaccinations. We need to bear that possible path forward in mind. And get everyone who can vaccinated.
But this isn’t a balanced post, looking at multiple options. It’s focused on the present sense that the near future is getting out of hand, when it comes to COVID-19. I admit to writing this with a great deal of personal anxiety, worried about my family, students, and clients. I am increasingly suspicious that many leading authorities are fouling up Delta, and that many of us may pay the price.
Put another way: a year ago I asked readers to imagine what things would look like if the pandemic lasted three years. We’re heading towards the end of year two now and year three is looking darker. Now… here we come.
I’ll keep this post up for people to share their thoughts, reflections, stories, and expertise. Please be sure to get the vaccines because they are far better than the alternative. Mask up. Take care and be safe.
(thanks to my family for conversation and to Linda Burns for a link)