August 13, 2020
Dr. Martha Buchanan
Senior Director and Public Health Officer
Knox County Board of Health
140 Dameron Avenue
Knoxville, TN 37917-6413
Dear Dr. Buchanan,
We call upon the Knox County Board of Health to acknowledge the public health emergency that will soon be precipitated by the return to campus of thousands of students under the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s Fall 2020 plan for in-person instruction. We further call upon you to strongly recommend that the University move to fully online instruction for some or all of the fall semester, or until such time as the infection rate in the county is under sufficient control. With respect for the good faith efforts of UT leadership to implement a plan for students to return to campus safely, we take this action for the following reasons:
1) The current plan for a full return to campus was made in early May. The COVID-19 situation in Knox County is now far worse.
2) The arrival of thousands of students in Knoxville in the coming days and weeks from all over the state and country will, with certainty, cause a dangerous surge in COVID-19 infections at UT and in the surrounding community.
3) A significant percentage of the students will be infected upon arrival, as will members of their families who are helping them move in, shopping and dining in Knoxville as they do so.
4) Many of the infected students will be asymptomatic, which will render any benefits of testing moot.
5) Testing is not adequately available or comprehensive and is still too slow to provide for timely quarantining and effective contact tracing.
6) The most fundamental problem of the UT plan is that it is premised upon rigorous conformity to CDC safety protocols by faculty, staff, and students. Regarding students, protocols would have to be adhered to 24/7 in the dorms, Greek houses, and off-campus apartment complexes. If experience and common sense are not enough, there is ample social and psychological research demonstrating that a large number of college age students will not conform sufficiently. Throughout the summer, there have been many eye-witness accounts of students here and nationally defying the most basic protocols with parties and casual socializing. Some UT faculty and staff have also often been in non-compliance, indoors and outdoors. Furthermore, the CDC protocols have become highly politicized, and it is reasonable to assume that many people at UT will simply refuse to follow them, whether they do so openly on campus, or in their dorms and off campus. Nor are there any practicable means of enforcement. UT faculty, staff, and student peers will be in the position of monitoring others’ behavior – a situation ripe for conflict.
The result of these factors will be that students, faculty, staff and the Knoxville community will be exposed to COVID-19 at levels unprecedented in this area. People will get sick, and some will almost certainly die. As has been documented nationally, this risk will fall disproportionately on people of color and those with lower incomes.
Yet another way forward exists: fully online classes with a mechanism for requesting exceptions for students who have to reside on campus, and for programs that must have an in-person component. This would ensure fewer numbers of people on campus and in town. Fewer numbers would be good in itself and much easier to manage more safely. Without this measure being taken, it is simply false to state that UT is currently doing everything possible for a safe return or making safety the top priority.
UT has a civic responsibility to Knoxville and Knox County to take immediate action to change course on the fall semester plan and go to online instruction. This virus requires agility of response. It has defeated our local and national efforts to control it, and the situation in Knoxville will no doubt be much worse if the University persists with the current plan. As difficult as it is to navigate the enormous uncertainties the virus presents, the evidence indicates that it is a false dichotomy to pose the dangers of the virus against those of the fiscal and economic damage of strict public health measures. Rigorous measures to control the virus are not the obstacle to successful economic re-opening, they are the key to it. This has been clearly demonstrated nationally and internationally.
Right now, we face two difficult paths in this community: down the one we are on, there is a near certainty of increasing mortality; down the other, with UT going fully online, there is much uncertainty and hardship, but greater safety for all. How will we account for deaths that could have been avoided?
We ask that you please stand firmly for the science of this pandemic, and formally recommend that the University take the safer path.
P.S. For your interest, we refer you to a letter of July 29th from the Orange County Health Department advising the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill to go online for at least five weeks, and preferably for the entire fall semester.