With the University of Georgia’s “phase three” reopening date looming, almost 12,000 people have signed a petition calling for the right to work remotely. Likewise, UGA faculty have sent a long list of demands to university administration calling for additional safety measures.
Staff petition for safe working environment
The petition drive, organized by the United Campus Workers of Georgia, originally called for a mask requirement as well as the right to work off campus for all staff, students and faculty when possible. UGA did later act to require masks on campus, but since the United Campus Workers have since expanded their list of demands.
They’re now calling for hazard pay for all UGA employees who can’t work remotely, guaranteed paid leave for those in quarantine and a virtual town hall meeting to discuss their concerns with administration.
“Those of us who are able to do our jobs through remote telework should be allowed to. I have been working from home with absolutely no problems since mid-March,” said one anonymous staff member. This person also expressed worry that a COVID-19 outbreak on campus is inevitable with current policy.
“All it will take is one student to go downtown to a crowded bar and catch COVID and bring it back. As soon as it happens, it will spread all over campus.”
Some are even talking about a “sick out” if University Health Services is unable to test all employees before they return to work.
Faculty call for all students to be tested within 24 hours of arrival
The demands of the United Campus Workers are similar to another list developed by the Franklin College Faculty Senate. First, these faculty members are calling for all students to be tested for COVID-19 within 24 hours of their arrival on campus. They’re also calling for the right to work and teach remotely, for guidelines to be published about when campus would close due to an outbreak and also for open communication, including a series of town hall meetings.
The faculty senate sent their demands to Chancellor Steve Wrigley and President Jere Morehead after their meeting on July 27. They will continue to discuss these issues, including possible next steps, in another senate meeting planned for August 11.
Evaluating the risk of UGA reopening
No one wants to be exposed to COVID-19, but we can’t put our lives on hold forever. How risky is UGA’s reopening plan, really?
Before we answer that question, let’s take a look at the big picture. It’s important to know just how badly we in the US have managed our response to this pandemic.
The global COVID-19 situation
There are 17.9 million confirmed COVID-19 cases worldwide. 4.7 million of these have been in the US; that’s about 26% of total cases, even though we make up only 4.2% of the world’s population.
The only country even close to us in case numbers is Brazil with 2.7 million.
While Brazil may actually be in the lead due to completely inadequate testing rates there, the US also is not testing enough.
The percentage of people testing positive, or the test positivity rate, is a measure often used to see if countries are doing enough testing. The World Health Organization recommends a positive rate of 5% or under before reopening, but the rate in the US right now is about 7% according to a report by Johns Hopkins University.
Compare the US response to that in a country like Italy, which saw a frightening outbreak in March with up to 6,000 new cases every day. Their healthcare system was completely overwhelmed, but they eventually managed to get it under control. Now, they’re down to only two or three hundred new cases a day and have an excellent test positivity rate of 2.1%.
They’re testing plenty, but the virus only shows up occasionally, meaning they’re mostly safe from another outbreak for now.
By contrast, the US experienced a wave of new infections in July that continues into August. Right now, we have around 70,000 new cases daily and a positivity rate above levels the World Health Organization considers safe.
The situation in Athens, Georgia
As bad as things are nationally, we’re doing even worse in Georgia.
Georgia has a disproportionate number of the new cases nationwide, relative to our population. Our test positivity rate is about 13% statewide, far above the target of 5%. We’ve gone from an average of about 700 new cases a day in early June to the extremely high level of ~3,500 a day now (the seven-day moving average was 3,598 on August 1).
Death rates, which had been trending down throughout June, have reached a new high.
Despite a more proactive government response to the pandemic in Athens, we’ve nonetheless followed the same trend as the rest of the state. Bars remain open into the night despite the mayor and commission recently setting an earlier last call (because of a restraining order issued by Judge Eric Norris).
UGA students will return to campus for classes on August 20. They will mingle in close quarters on buses and classrooms, in bars and coffee shops, at parties and at football games. Let’s face it — many of them will not always be wearing their masks over both mouth and nose, even if required by ACC ordinance and UGA policy.
Clarke County has delayed the start of the school year until September 8, but schools in counties around Athens are already reopening. Masks are not even mandatory at some of these schools.
These factors, put together, make a surge in new COVID-19 cases seem very likely, if not guaranteed, once UGA students and school students in neighboring counties return to their campuses.
These school and university reopenings come at a time when Georgia hospitals are already stretched to their limits. The Department of Public Health reported that there were zero critical care beds available in the Northeast Georgia hospital region that includes Athens on July 27, and the situation has not improved much since then. Across the state, 86% of ICU beds are full.
In light of these facts, the risk of UGA reopening at this time appears very high. It may be advised to take extreme precautions in coming weeks if you work on UGA campus or live in the Athens area.