Universities are supposed to be bastions of critical thinking, reason and logic. But the Covid policies they have adopted—policies that have derailed two years of students’ education and threaten to upend the upcoming spring semester—have exposed them as nonsensical, anti-scientific and often downright cruel.
Some of America’s most prestigious universities are leading the charge.
At Georgetown University, fully vaccinated students are randomly tested for Covid every week. Using a PCR test, which can detect tiny amounts of dead virus, asymptomatic students who test positive are ordered to a room in a designated building where they spend 10 days in confinement. Food is dropped off once a day at the door.
I spoke to several students who were holed up. One of them told me she would sometimes call a friend to come and wave at her through the window, just to see a human face. Another told me that the experience in quarantine “totally changed” her feelings about the school. “Everyone’s just fed up at this point,” she said. “People walk around the library and yell at you if you drink a sip of water. And it was during finals.” She told me she is thinking about “transferring to an SEC school just to have an in-person experience.”
Given the fact that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recently changed the official quarantine period from 10 days to five, I reached out to Georgetown’s Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Ranit Mishori. She told me that Georgetown is still using a 10-day quarantine.
Students are the lowest risk population on planet Earth. Over the last six months, the risk of a person in the broader age group (15-24) dying of Covid or dying with Covid (the CDC does not clearly distinguish), was 0.001%. All or nearly all of those deaths were in a very specific subgroup: unvaccinated people with a medical comorbidity. But despite Georgetown’s strict vaccination, masking, testing, and quarantine requirements, the university announced late last month that “all University events, including meetings with visitors, will need to be held virtually or outdoors,” among many other restrictions.
At Princeton University, fully vaccinated students are not allowed to leave the county unless they are on a sports team. They’re also testing all students twice a week, usurping the scarce testing supply from vulnerable communities so that low-risk, young people can use them.
At Cornell, masks are still the rule—and even recommended outdoors. “Masks must be worn indoors at all times, unless in a private, non-shared space (e.g., dorm room or office); we strongly recommend masking outdoors when physical distancing is not possible,” the school announced in mid-December.
At Amherst, students must double mask if they don’t use a KN95. In nearby Boston, at Emerson College, students are tested twice a week and have stay-in-room orders. The college instructs students to “only leave their residence halls or place of residence for testing, meals, medical appointments, necessary employment, or to get mail.” Seriously.
At these institutions of higher learning and thousands more, science is supposedly held in the highest esteem. So where is the scientific support for masking outdoors? Where is the scientific support for constantly testing fully vaccinated young people? Where is the support for the confinement of asymptomatic, young people who test positive for a virus to which they are already immune on a campus of other immune people?
The data simply do not justify any of it.
According to the CDC, the risk of a fully vaccinated adult ending up in the hospital for Covid was 1 in 26,000 for the week ending in November 27. Who was that one person? Not a college student. One analysis of breakthrough infections by age found that the average age of a vaccinated person being hospitalized is 72 years, and the average age of a vaccinated person dying of Covid is 80. The data clearly tell us that the risk of a breakthrough Covid infection resulting in severe illness is extremely rare. When it does occur, it is profoundly skewed toward septuagenarians and octogenarians.
From the beginning of this pandemic, the risk of Covid to young people has always been extremely low, a finding public health officials have downplayed instead of acknowledged. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children have represented 0.00%-0.27% of all Covid-19 deaths.
In other words, a total of 803 American children have died from Covid or with Covid over the last two years. That’s less than the number of total deaths from both influenza and RSV infection in a typical year before the pandemic. A recent study of children in Germany found that no healthy child between the ages of 5 and 17 died of Covid during a 15-month period when nearly all were unvaccinated. Zero. In the whole country.
And yet there is very much a public health crisis facing young people. It is a crisis that’s been created by these draconian Covid policies—a crisis that’s the result of depriving young Americans of the basic enjoyment of life and the benefits of human connection.
A study conducted by The Jed Foundation, a nonprofit that combats suicide among young people, found that, over the course of 2020, 31% of parents said their child’s mental health was worse than before the pandemic. There has been a surge in hospital visits for self-harm, a surge that was particularly acute among adolescent girls. The U.S. Surgeon General recently declared a mental health crisis among young people globally, citing 25% of youth experiencing depressive symptoms and 20% experiencing anxiety symptoms.
Last week, the CDC reported that weekly deaths in people age 18-29 has decreased to zero from one in five million the week prior. That’s lower than the number of deaths from car accidents, suicide, and firearms in young people. So why are we imposing a kind of martial law on students to ever so slightly reduce the chance that they develop a mild illness?
For the past two years, this country has imposed extensive, and often unnecessary, restrictions on over 54 million school-age children, even though they are the least likely group to suffer serious consequences of a Covid infection. Instead, we have damaged their education, kept them from seeing human faces, and treated them as vectors without a right to a normal childhood.
College students are not the only young people we have harmed. A recent Brown University study found that “children born during the pandemic have significantly reduced verbal, motor, and overall cognitive performance compared to children born pre-pandemic.” The researchers pointed out that families of lower socioeconomic status were most affected. At the same time, adults have been allowed to socialize barefaced at bars, while children outdoors on playgrounds are still masked. This is nothing short of an abuse of power by adults over a defenseless group.
Right now, public health experts in Los Angeles, Boston, and various other cities are recommending that children wear N95 or KN95 masks—the kind of cumbersome, uncomfortable masks that I’ve seen doctors and nurses loosen or rip off at the end of a shift. This despite the deleterious educational and psychological effects on children of being masked for the better part of two years.
At the very same moment that schools are getting more extreme in their Covid policies, nature has handed us what appears to be a gift. Omicron is a far milder version of Covid that is rapidly displacing the more dangerous Delta variant and conferring cross immunity. A University of Hong Kong study found that Omicron is one-tenth as infective in lung cells compared to the Delta variant, which explains why Omicron results in far less severe illness. According to South African Health Minister Dr. Joe Phaahla, only 1.7% of Covid cases were hospitalized in the second week of the Omicron-dominant wave, compared with 19% in the same week of the prior Delta wave.
This news should be welcomed by our institutions of public health and higher learning. Instead, despite all evidence about this variant, fear of Omicron is driving more harmful policies imposed on society’s lowest risk people.
One knee-jerk reaction to the more mild Omicron virus has been to push boosters on young people, despite no supporting clinical data and serious concerns of myocarditis complications. That’s exactly why FDA’s expert advisors voted against boosting young people by a 16-2 vote on September 17, 2021. (Just yesterday, the FDA ignored their recommendation and approved the Pfizer booster for kids as young as 12.)
Current data actually tips the risk to benefit analysis in favor of not boosting young healthy people. Of course, that data could change in the future, at which time we may need to shift our strategy. But at the moment it is not compelling. A recent Israeli study in the New England Journal of Medicine noted zero Covid deaths among double-vaccinated people 16-29 years old without a booster. You can’t lower a risk of zero any further with a booster. But the risk of myocarditis in young people is quite real. A new study published last week by Kaiser Permanente Northwest researchers found that as many as 1 in 1,860 men 18-24 years old developed myocarditis after the second shot. In another New England Journal of Medicine study of 136 people who developed myocarditis, two cases were critical and one 22-year old died.
Schools like Emory, Tulane, Wake Forest and Johns Hopkins, my own university, which are now requiring boosters in healthy young people are venturing into uncharted waters. They are risking health complications in young people for the sake of beating back mild and asymptomatic infections.
Over the past several months, students from around the country have reached out to me, outraged at excessive policies imposed upon them. They were afraid to be identified in this essay for fear of retaliation. And for good reason. Around the country students have been punished, suspended, and even expelled for violations of draconian masking and socializing policies.
It’s time for them to speak out.
Students, parents and university donors should voice their concerns. They should ask good questions, such as: New data last week from the U.K. found that booster efficacy at 10 weeks dropped to 35% with Pfizer and 45% with Moderna, will the university require another booster at that time? And will boosters be required every 3-6 months in perpetuity? How many healthy college students have died from Covid during the pandemic? Will we continue to take all these precautions next year if influenza poses the same case fatality rate? If I have circulating antibodies from prior Covid illness, will the university recognize those antibodies as countries in Europe do? Does the university or CDC have any updated data on mental health problems among students each year over the last three years?
The medical establishment is intoxicated with groupthink, just as it had in believing that Covid spreads through surface transmission, in instituting barbaric policies that prohibited people from visiting their dying loved ones, and in shutting children out of school for a less contagious variant last year. Concerned citizens should challenge medical dogma with data.
It’s time to learn to live with Covid by using some common sense practices: If you’re sick, stay home. If you’re around someone vulnerable, be careful. If you’ve been exposed, wear a real, quality, N95 mask. For the young who have natural or vaccinated immunity, it’s a mild virus that will circulate for the rest of their lives.
I worked at Georgetown hospital for five years as a resident. One crucial lesson my mentors there hammered into me was: Treat the person, not the lab result. When students return to campus later this month—as I hope they will to alleviate a worsening mental health crisis—college administrators need to heed this essential advice.
Dr. Marty Makary is a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. In 2020, his bestselling book, “The Price We Pay,” won the Business Book of the Year Award.