Chair of Furman Health Sciences Department Offers Perspective on Public Health Risk
Following the Aug. 27 Furman Focused update on the Kappa Alpha chapter’s interim suspension, The Paladin reached out to the chair of the health sciences department, Dr. Natalie The, to hear her thoughts on the effects these events have for campus health and safety. Dr. The shared her statement both as chair of the health sciences department and as an epidemiologist. Her full statement can be read below, but readers should be mindful that it is Dr. The’s own perspective and may or may not represent the views of other Health Sciences faculty members.
As a faculty member, I had started to hear some things from various sources earlier this week about a gathering last weekend. I am deeply concerned with the recent news that there were indeed large social events during a pandemic. We now know the immediate impact of the events with 53 students who are under quarantine for potential exposure to COVID. I am concerned for the physical well-being of these potentially exposed students and the other student(s) who have a COVID positive diagnosis. While we know certain individuals are at higher risk for more severe consequences of COVID, young, healthy individuals still have some risk of experiencing serious consequences. We also have students who may be at higher risk of COVID complications including those with immune conditions, current asthma, those who vape/smoke and many other conditions.
I am also concerned about the longer-term impacts of such a gathering. If any of the individuals who attended the party and were exposed, this will result in additional exposures to their close contacts such as roommates and potentially their families if they leave to quarantine at home or even Furman faculty and staff who may be at higher risk of experiencing serious consequences. The type of events that were held last weekend were precisely the same events that are impacting other universities and their decisions to transition from an in-person to fully remote learning experience, such as the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The domino effect of the party will be more clearly known in the coming days. From an optimistic perspective, I hope that none of the 53 individuals test positive, there are no subsequent secondary or tertiary COVID infections and our university will not have to shift course in response to last weekend’s event. Alternatively, we could be forced to follow the footsteps of UNC and others who have been forced to end in-person instruction. We will begin to understand the full ramifications and consequences of last weekend’s events soon.
I understand that our students want and need to gather with their peers and friends – it’s part of the normal college experience and some of the fondest memories of my own college experience. Gatherings provide social support that is important for social and mental well-being. The current times are stressful on so many levels and these events represent a way in which students can connect and feel normal. Students need to find and engage in socially safe activities such as calling, video chats or small outdoor gatherings, like in grassy areas with a small group of friends while maintaining six feet from those who are not living in the same apartment or dorm room. Students should still wear a mask in these situations. Unfortunately, a pandemic does not allow us to have our usual social events. I do not know whether alcohol was officially involved in the social event last weekends. I have concerns that it was, and we know alcohol lowers inhibition and the ability to effectively follow COVID guidelines.
I recognize that the many rules and procedures in place due to COVID are challenging. No one enjoys the lack of normalcy. No one enjoys wearing a mask. No one enjoys physical distancing. No one wants a long swab stuck in their nose. No one wants to be in quarantine or isolation for two weeks. Public health research also clearly demonstrates that wearing masks and physical distancing are highly effective ways of mitigating and slowing the spread of COVID. We also must test to have an accurate picture of what is happening on campus. Seeking testing off campus and failing to communicate positive results could result in the transition to remote learning for everyone. I know students are concerned about sharing positive test results with Furman as this would result in student isolation for two weeks. No one wants that either, but if a student who has a COVID positive diagnosis reports their status to the Earle Student Health Center, Furman can begin to contact trace, quarantine and isolate. If we can follow appropriate protocols, the student who has gone home for two weeks will get to come back for their on-campus experience because Furman is able to mitigate campus risk. Failure to communicate with Furman will only continue the domino effect and could result in the transition to remote learning.
There is so much information that is available on Furman Focused. I also recognize that there is so much information on the webpage that keeping track of all of it is challenging. If you can remember nothing of what’s on that page, below I’ve highlighted important guidelines outside of the classroom.
1. Practice physical distancing of at least six feet apart (think two arms lengths apart) with anyone who you do not reside with even when outdoors.
2. Wear a mask anytime you are indoors except when you are in your own residence or eating/drinking.
3. Being outdoors is not a substitute for physical distancing and masking. You should still do both while outside. If you know you will be by yourself, it’s reasonable to not wear a mask (e.g. you are running around the Furman lake by yourself), but should still carry one with you in the event you see others.
4. Choose safe social activities such as video, social media or a phone call. In addition, small outdoor gatherings, such as in the field or grassy area with a small group of friends while maintaining six feet from others who are not in your residence. Wear a mask in these situations.
5. Avoid crowded places and gatherings where it is difficult to stay six feet away from others.
6. Avoid (or limit) going into the local Greenville community where there is still a relatively high level of spread. Bars and some churches in particular are high-risk places because of the inability to physically distance in an indoor environment and the effect of alcohol on reducing the ability to adhere to protocols
7. Commute (walk, bike, or drive) by yourself or only with those you reside with.
8. Practice good respiratory hygiene.
9. Be kind to yourself and others. Some individuals may think they are adhering to rules when they are not – they may honestly have a hard time judging what six feet is. Or the group that has congregated outside for dinner may be roommates in an apartment who by default are already close contacts. It’s appropriate to remind people kindly to follow guidelines. Shaming is not effective either in person or via social media, and only exacerbates stress, anxiety, and mental health concerns.
As encouraging as yesterday’s dashboard numbers may seem, please remember that these numbers are only a snapshot of one moment. Without our continued vigilance, the numbers could swiftly change as we may see soon due to last weekend. Additionally, the small numbers on the dashboard do not adequately convey our profound concerns for those in our community and their family members who have tested positive.
We all want to have the Furman experience. This ability to continue to live and learn on campus this semester rests on your ongoing commitment to uphold these guidelines and requires all of us to come together to care for and protect one another. We can do this together.”