February 5, 2021 - Podcast

Episode 87—College COVID-19 response, and mental health

Until vaccines against COVID-19 are available to all, the public will need two things: a reason for hope and a vision of how to live safely in the meantime. Aaron Carroll, professor of pediatrics at Indiana University, says for both, Americans can look to the examples set by a number of colleges and universities. Since last summer, many news stories have highlighted failures by individual universities to manage the pandemic. Outbreaks have occurred, and some data even suggest that college reopenings led to more infections in the counties in which they are located. But Carroll says that’s only part of the story. Many schools, including IU, took on the job of preventing the spread of the coronavirus among their students, employees, and host communities and have sought to manage the problem in a comprehensive manner. Carroll says schools that have succeeded have done so by learning from one another, by redeploying people and resources, and by employing the tactics that epidemiologists all over the world have advocated but too few areas of the U.S. have adopted. IU, like many universities in the U.S., shut down in March. Administrators soon called together a committee of experts in medicine, public health, and public safety to create a plan for how the school might function safely during the pandemic. IU aimed for a mix of virtual and in-person instruction, developed a mechanism where symptomatic students, faculty and staff could get a COVID test and set up contact tracing. Eventually, IU, like other universities developed its own testing lab. However, not every college or university that reopened have taken enough protective steps, Carroll says. Unable or unwilling to invest in overcoming the testing bottleneck, too many schools did little or no asymptomatic surveillance, eventually leading to breakouts. Additionally, too many institutions were also overconfident in their ability to persuade 20-year-olds to stop having parties. IU was among the institutions that suspended students for hosting large off-campus gatherings, but relied much more on promoting solidarity and communicating specifics than on making threats. Carroll says beating COVID-19 requires resources, will, and a sense of shared sacrifice. The U.S. has too widely failed in the past year in providing these, he says. Vaccines are rolling out too slowly, and new variants of the coronavirus are emerging. Carroll says figuring out how to live safely in this environment is imperative. Universities like IU have many lessons to teach.

In other news, cold weather, shorter days, and minimal amounts of sunshine can make the winter season a difficult time for many. Add in nearly a year of isolation and worries brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, and there’s potential for significant increases in anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions in the first few months of 2021. But Elizabeth Barnett, director of Counseling and Psychological Services at Indiana University Kokomo, says there are steps you can take to combat these issues and help is just a phone call or email away. Barnett says there is a different overall sense of anxiety in the world today, due to the pandemic. Death tolls and positive coronavirus testing rates are being thrown at us on a daily basis and now we have wintertime isolation. In some cases, a little self-care can help alleviate the impact of those stresses. Give yourself some TLC— get enough sleep, eat well, exercise, connect with people in some way, maybe even find a new hobby. However, Barnett says, if you find yourself losing interest in things you used to enjoy, sleeping all the time or not sleeping at all, or eating more or less than normal, those are signs that it could be time to reach out for help. Getting good exercise and using your body well can help you combat the symptoms of anxiety and depression, Barnett says. The more you move, the more you want to move. Barnett also suggests making a schedule, and writing in times for regular meals and sleep. Sometimes in a situation where we aren’t leaving our houses, it’s easy to get our personal time clocks messed up,. Barnett says it’s important that to give yourself time for enough sleep. Furthermore, Barnett says finding ways to connect with others is vitally important and so is knowing when you’ve had enough. Human beings are, by nature, relational, she says. It’s easy to isolate yourself at home, so try to reach out whether it’s by Zoom or phone.