For as long as the coronavirus pandemic has been going on, there have been those seeking to minimize the pandemic, or to use manipulations of statistics to imply that it’s not as severe as it first appears, and that therefore it’s time to immediately end restrictions and get back to normal. Remember “Google any three-digit number?” Or the supposed CDC statistic that only 6% of coronavirus deaths were “really” due to the virus?
The latest one of these is a chart that’s been making the rounds, which states that at a handful of colleges in the United States with large numbers of coronavirus cases, there have been zero reports of hospitalizations of students. The implication, often stated outright by this crowd, is that college students are impervious to serious coronavirus cases. Those sharing this false information then claim it is therefore time to open up campuses, resume college football, and remove any other restrictions. Like so many things in the last four years, this talking point has gone with uncommon speed from Twitter, to famous pundits and influencers, all the way up to the White House briefing room.
And this one, like the others, is quite misleading.
The claim appears to have originated in a September 8 tweet by Andrew Bostom, an assistant professor at Brown University. Bostom produced a chart, listing twenty-nine colleges that have reported large numbers of positive coronavirus tests among students. The first column lists the colleges, the second lists the large numbers of positive coronavirus tests, and the third column lists “reported hospitalizations.” In the third column, for every single college, the number is zero. The chart has been updated a few times since.
Many have taken that chart to imply that there have been no hospitalizations of any college students anywhere, at least not at those twenty-nine schools. That’s how it’s been interpreted, and amplified, by many of the leading lights of the coronavirus skepticism world, such as conservative sports commentator Clay Travis. Travis said, “There have now been 26,000 covid positive tests reported on 29 different college campuses. There are ZERO student hospitalizations as a result. Zero.” Fox News host Laura Ingraham also claimed that, “Thousands of cases but ZERO hospitalizations in colleges: This is GOOD news. But states and colleges force draconian lockdowns.” Finally, the baseball pitcher-turned-conspiracy theorist Curt Schilling, stated that “Over 11,000 college students have tested positive, 0 hospitalizations. Why is the nation shut down again?”
This talking point even found a way into a briefing by the president of the United States. President Trump, per CNBC, said in a White House press briefing September 10 that his administration had reviewed data from twenty colleges, and that “not a single student” had been hospitalized. “Colleges and universities are extremely low-risk environments,” the president said. Behind him in the briefing room was a chart similar to Bostom’s, which listed universities and a column of zeroes listed for hospitalizations.
However, a look at the fine print, and consultation with an expert, show that these charts don’t quite say what they appear to say.
It’s undoubtedly true that college students are less likely to hospitalized with coronavirus symptoms than older people are. But the number isn’t zero. And even if it were, the low number is far from a case for immediate lifting of any and all restrictions.
But beyond that, you would think from the chart that each of those universities has positively confirmed that they have had no hospitalizations of students. But that’s not the case at all. Some of the colleges have said that, but many more of them have released no figures at all about how many students have or have not been hospitalized. There are a few reasons for that, including privacy considerations. Moreover, universities aren’t state or county health departments and aren’t necessarily in the business of regularly releasing hospitalization statistics.
Several colleges release coronavirus figures on a dedicated dashboard site. Some of those dashboards include hospitalizations among the statistics, but most do not. Duke doesn’t, and neither do Auburn University, the University of Kentucky, or several other schools listed on the chart with large numbers of cases. A few of the universities include hospitalizations on their dashboards, and in some cases, university spokespeople have specifically told the media that they’ve had zero hospitalizations, but in many others, they haven’t.
“The hospitalization rate in 18-30yr olds is really very low. But it’s absolutely not zero,” Dr. Cameron Wolfe, Associate Professor of Medicine at Duke University and infectious disease expert, told The National Interest in an email interview. “So I doubt the tables presented in [Bostom’s chart], in fact I know them to be incorrect. Apart from individual cases that I’m aware of from colleagues, for example, if you take UNC near where I work, their dashboard doesn’t list hospitalizations. So just because they don’t report them doesn’t mean they’re not occurring.”
There’s also the matter that if a student is hospitalized with coronavirus and is taken to a hospital not affiliated with the college, there’s a chance the college wouldn’t even know about the hospitalization, much less be in position to report it publicly. There are also students who may land in infirmaries or student health centers, which often treat sick college students instead of hospitals. And finally, hospitalizations are a lagging indicator. Students who tested positive upon arriving on campus in late August may not have gotten sick immediately.
But even if it’s true that there are few hospitalizations, does that mean the virus is harmless on campuses, and therefore it’s time to chuck all social distancing measures and go back to normal? Absolutely not. College students can spread coronavirus to others, including the numerous employees at the colleges or in nearby areas, some of whom may not be so young or healthy. And the students can also face long-term health issues, even if they’re not hospitalized.
“It’s altogether a different issue if rates on a campus start spilling over into the environmental services staff, or surrounding community, or feeds back up into parents or grandparents—i.e., people who are at higher risk of severe illness,” Dr. Wolfe said. “We have seen morbidity and mortality in those workforces. It’s also nearly impossible to link those infections, and any deaths associated with them, back to a campus or a particular workforce that spawned the problem in the first place.”
The New York Times reported Friday that while “only a small number [of college cases] have resulted in hospitalizations,” sixty campus cases, mostly of staff members, have resulted in deaths. Sixty deaths is not, contra the president, indicative of “an extremely low-risk environment.”
The virus has also begun to spread in college towns. “What has happened on campus hasn’t stayed on campus,” the Times said.
The Times story also quoted the president of the University of Dayton, in Ohio, as stating that two students at the college were hospitalized. Bostom’s chart listed that number as zero.
“We all work extremely hard to prevent cases in colleges for the sake of both the students, and all the people they interact with in their broader community,” Dr. Wolfe said.
Stephen Silver, a technology writer for The National Interest, is a journalist, essayist and film critic, who is also a contributor to Philly Voice, Philadelphia Weekly, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Living Life Fearless, Backstage magazine, Broad Street Review and Splice Today. The co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle, Stephen lives in suburban Philadelphia with his wife and two sons. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenSilver.