Pundit Podcast Episode 2: Despite COVID-19, Schools Should Not Throw Away A Student’s Shot

Cornell University has justified reopening school this fall by establishing elaborate screening, quarantine policies and enforcing social distancing. Yet we are reminded that this age cohort has negligible risk of dying from COVID-19. Think of the student athlete who strives to be a pro and can’t live his or her dream because his or her school can’t take responsibility for even the most minimal of risks.

Even in the case of food safety, our society has zero tolerance for the most infinitesimal risk.

In the end, society’s aversion to risk at all costs has its price.

The Wall Street Journal ran an opinion piece signed by both the provost and  president of Cornell University explaining the decision to reopen Cornell to residential instruction this fall.

Not surprisingly, the piece is thoughtful and thorough. The gist of their argument is that, at a school like Cornell, where many students live off campus in apartments in “Collegetown” and other parts of Ithaca, New York, by opening the school to physical attendance — as opposed to all online education — the school maintains authority.

It can compel students to be tested for the coronavirus every five days, demand the students wear masks, ensure the spacing of chairs in class is socially distant, reduce the density of housing and much more.

Relying on an epidemiological modeling effort headed up by Cornell professor Peter Frazier, the authors claim that, in many cases, schools that “play it safe” by moving classes all on line will wind up having more cases of COVID-19, more hospitalizations and more deaths among the people in their community — students, faculty, staff —  than schools that open up and utilize their authority to test and enforce behavior.

This argument seems well researched and is probably true. Although it is not certainly true. After all, maybe young adults forced to socially distance themselves all day may be inclined to get close at night. Of course, it comes off a little elitist as the same argument should apply to everyone, not just university communities.

If the government ordered citizens to be tested every five days, compelled those who tested positive to be quarantined for two weeks, ordered social distancing on penalty of prison, etc., then there would be less spread of COVID-19. If avoiding COVID-19 is so important, why shouldn’t people who don’t go to college get the same effort made to protect them?

Of course, it is not 100% clear that seeking to reduce the spread of COVID-19 is the right direction. It may not even be possible. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has a doctorate in quantum chemistry, has put it this way: “We have to understand that many people will be infected. The consensus among experts is that 60 to 70 percent of the population will be infected as long as this remains the situation.”

In other words, despite our hopes, since there has never been a vaccine against a coronavirus, we have to expect that this problem will not magically go away. We are reminded that although therapies have dramatically improved, diseases such as HIV continue to exist without a vaccine being developed despite decades of effort

The whole situation is an extension of what we have seen in the food industry for decades — a massive expression of a society that has become unable to deal with risk. The Wall Street Journal published an Op-Ed piece by this author, titled Lettuce Try Not To Panic, dealing with the risk of eating romaine lettuce during an outbreak in 2018.

This was a near hysterical situation, with the government effectively closing down the Romaine lettuce industry by urging that “U.S. consumers not eat any romaine lettuce, and retailers and restaurants not serve or sell any” until the E. coli outbreak was resolved.

What caused this extraordinary recommendation by the US government?. This is what we wrote in the midst of the crisis:

…the odds that eating a serving of romaine will make you sick are about 1 in 11 million, and the odds it will put you in the hospital are less than 1 in 28 million. To put this in perspective, the probability of getting a royal flush in poker is dozens of times as great, at 1 in 649,740, and the probability of an amateur hitting a hole-in-one in golf is hundreds of times as great, at 1 in 12,000. If you are that risk-averse, you should stay away from dogs—the lifetime odds of getting killed by a dog attack are about 1 in 112,000. Even the odds of getting struck by lightning in a particular year are higher than 1 in a million.

To put it another way: If this outbreak were active every day, and you ate one salad a day, on average you would be hospitalized for E. coli once every 77,000 years.

And this likely overstates the problem. In past food-related E. coli outbreaks, the people hospitalized tended to be those with weakened immune systems such as the very old, the very young, and patients undergoing stem-cell transplants or chemotherapy. These groups are often advised by their doctors to avoid eating foods that may contain pathogens anyway. The odds of otherwise healthy people facing hospitalization is even lower than this infinitesimal amount. The CDC never actually discloses the risks it so fervently advises avoiding, perhaps because it would be laughed at if it did.

How does the risk of eating Romaine lettuce compare to COVID-19? Well, for women under 44 years of age and men under 39 years of age — which is basically the entire student body of most universities — the United Kingdom has published observed population fatality rates and found that the rate is less than 0.00!

So, we are off in the third decimal place or less on every five-year age cohort from 0 to 49 in women and 0 to 44 in men. Remember that whatever deaths might occur are often related to co-morbidities — in other words, the very unfortunate child who has cancer or a heart condition and, also, gets COVID-19.

As the country is consumed with the Black Lives Matter protests, we need to consider what has led to this movement taking off at this particular time.

Even for the working adults beyond the age of 49 among women and beyond 44 among men, the percentage numbers for COVID-19 deaths run from 0.01% to 0.08% in five-year cohorts; with men, from 60 to 64, being the most endangered at 0.08%. Again, a very high percentage of these deaths are in people with co-morbidities — diabetes, cancer, heart disease, etc.

Surely, part of the motivation is that the general philosophy of lockdowns serves the interests of two distinct groups — older people who are more vulnerable to COVID-19 and those who are already financially set.

The oldest active NFL player is Tom Brady at 42 years old. The average age of an NFL player is a little over 26 years old and, typically, players are only pros for three or four years. Even the average Pro-Bowl-nominated player only has an NFL career of 12 years.

If you go to all 18-year-olds dreaming of a pro-football career and tell them there is a chance, but less than 0.00% chance, that they will get the disease and then die from it, almost every player will want to play. They would probably say the same if the risk was 1% or higher.

This is their shot. We should let them take it.

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We’ve been trying to build a better industry for more than 35 years. Maybe we can also help build a better world. Thanks for sharing the journey.