Is Bates Ready for COVID-19?

Madeline Polkinghorn, Managing Editor

The 2019 novel coronavirus (COVID-19), which is caused by the severe acute respiratory system coronavirus 2, has stoked panic into the globe’s social fabrics, political systems, and markets. The disease, first recorded in Wuhan, China, may cause severe respiratory distress and has been shown to be transmitted through interpersonal, community transmission. Institutions such as Bates College are left hanging in the balance as far as the best structural approach to containing possible outbreaks. While the state of Maine currently has no confirmed cases of COVID-19, outbreaks have been recorded in neighboring states and the increasing accessibility of test kits will more likely than not mean that COVID-19 will enter the state.
In addressing the Bates College Health Center and administration, I was referred back to the College’s formal guidelines for preventing the virus which include frequent hand washing, self-isolation, and avoidance of close contact with sick people. The College has issued four official statements regarding the disease and maintains that “staff and faculty from many parts of the college are working together to anticipate how Bates would address various scenarios with respect to COVID-19 and develop contingency plans.”
Bates has experienced serious outbreaks in recent history. In 2016, the College recorded multiple confirmed cases of the mumps. During the H1N1 (commonly known as “swine flu”) outbreak of 2009, the Health Center quarantined students who presented symptoms, with students being placed into isolation housing or sent home to families. Just this past winter season, the College, like the rest of the state, experienced an outbreak of common influenza.
“I hope Bates is prepared!”, says Oceana Baranchuck ’20. “I feel like I’m kind of the dark with the lack of information we’ve received. I haven’t seen or heard much, nor do I know anything about how the College plans to respond if we are hit with the virus, which gives me some anxiety.”
For Nick White ’21, Bates seems ready to address the worst-case scenario. “I believe that Bates is as prepared as surrounding colleges are and is going to handle any possible outbreak following protocol from likely more effective medical facilities than Bates Health.”
The implications of COVID-19 are not, of course, unique to students. Professor Wesley Chaney, who serves as an Assistant Professor of History and is a scholar of China, is experiencing a sense of closeness to COVID-19 both figuratively and literally.
“I was actually in China with my whole family, including my three-year-old son and eight-month-old daughter, in December and January, so my initial reactions were very much focused on the health of friends and family. I had read some initial reports about a mysterious virus in early January and we had family friends who learned around January 20 that patients with cold-like symptoms were being directed to the ER. But then when the announcement came down on January 23 to close Wuhan, just one day before the Lunar New Year’s Eve, everything changed. It was an incredibly stressful time — the New Year’s festivities were so subdued and, frankly, sad.”
Leadership, clearly, is an essential component in combating the epidemic, and those in power to make infrastructural decisions are judged harshly.
“During late January and early February,” remarked Chaney, “This was very much a Chinese story, propelled by journalists at places like Caixin that had uncovered substantial official cover-up in the initial weeks. In the last ten days or so, however, this has become, in more obvious ways, a global story and the initial mistakes by officials in China have been overtaken by what is happening in Italy, Iran, and here in the States.”
For some, it seems unlikely to think that school administration might have much influence in preventing what is essentially an inevitable outbreak.
“I think there might be an outbreak at Bates,” commented Timothy Kaplowitz ’20. “But I don’t think it’s really in the administration’s control either way.”
There is hope and guidance in the experts who are monitoring this disease directly. Dr. Wollelaw Agmas, an infectious disease fellow at Maine Medical Center, understands the anxiety on college campuses.
The panic about COVID-19, says Agmas, “is understandable because [COVID-19] is crazy in terms of its diameter after it started in China. It’s understandable if people panic. My advice is as much as possible, have an alcohol swab and keep your hands clean. And if other people are coughing, don’t get close to them. We don’t understand the virus very well yet.”
Certain demographics, argues Agmas, are particularly vulnerable or in some cases, apparently protected from the virus. “So, there is this research recently published from Chinese patients… the first 450 patients were analyzed. So the things we know so far is how long it takes to be symptomatic after an individual is exposed, and which group of people are at highest risk. So based on that research study, children are less affected. Out of 450 patients, there were no children… if children are infected, the symptoms are very mild. So most of the patients affected are an older age group. The other group of individuals at higher risk are individuals with other illnesses like respiratory problems like COPD, asthma, diabetes, or heart problems. Those individuals are at high risk.”
If you experience flu-like symptoms such as fever or cough, have recently been in contact with someone who has contracted COVID-19, or have recently visited a highly affected country such as China, Iran, Italy, or South Korea; you should call a healthcare provider immediately and discuss what your next steps of action should be and whether you may be a candidate for testing. “If [you] have the infection,” says Agmas, “[you] are exposing other people. So the testing is very advisable. That way you can avoid exposing other people.”
The future for COVID-19 at Bates, and the world at large, is uncertain. But, as Chaney ends, at “its heart, [COVID-19] is a horrific tragedy and I fear discussion of the COVID-19 outbreak has FAR too often ignored the suffering of thousands of people.”
Since the initial writing of this article, President Clayton Spencer announced that the College would not, unlike numerous institutions across the country, suspend in-person classes for the semester.