Editorial: Blaming increased cases on “travel” masks the truth behind pandemic response

Editorial Board

It’s hard to keep track of which pandemic wave we are currently in. To some, we are in the second, or even perhaps the third. However, by simply looking at cases across the U.S. since March, it is clear that there has seemingly never been a break since the first wave of COVID-19. While cases do oscillate to some extent, there is a general trend upward both in the U.S. and in Ohio. On Oct. 21, this trend spiked with over 2,300 new cases in a single day. In response, Case Western Reserve University sent out a message titled “You Can Do This …” reaffirming their dedication to keeping students on campus and the transmission of COVID-19 low. However, perhaps the most interesting part of this message was the justification given for the increasing number of cases: travel.

At the national and even state level, travel can surely justify part of the increased number of cases. As people start to believe cases are decreasing or the pandemic has subsided, they are more likely to resume pre-pandemic activities such as traveling. However, traveling is but a symptom of the larger reason for why cases are increasing: people not taking the pandemic seriously and disregarding epidemiologists and science. 

COVID-19 cases are increasing due to carelessness, in two parts. The first part is, as the word careless describes, individuals and organizations who refuse to wear masks, social distance, contact trace and take other necessary precautions. The second component of carelessness is our society’s failure to prioritize and protect vulnerable communities. We cannot blame increased transmission on individuals who are forced to use public transportation or continue working in-person because they need to keep paying rent, buying food and caring for a family, when we have failed to provide adequate assistance for those people. We need to be careful to not fall into a trap of masking the real reasons for increased COVID-19 transmission. 

At the campus level, we also need to tread carefully around these issues. CWRU has so far done an excellent job of ensuring students, faculty and staff monitor symptoms, get tested, wear a mask and socially distance. As a result, there have only been 56 positive cases after administering 5,555 tests. These results are encouraging. Hopefully, students will be able to remain on-campus through Thanksgiving break, and that perhaps more students will be able to return in the spring. 

However, encouraging results are not enough, just as thoughts and prayers are not enough during a global pandemic. We need to heavily rely on science. Fortunately, CWRU is well positioned as a leading STEM institute surrounded by two prominent hospitals, University Hospital (UH) and Cleveland Clinic. If CWRU could not maintain low transmission rates with an abundance of resources, what school would?  

We should not take the current low rates of transmission on campus for granted. And, if the university is serious about promoting travel as the leading cause of increased number of cases, then it should take extra precautions. 

One such precaution includes creating a form that students, staff and faculty must complete if they plan to leave Northeast Ohio for any reason. This is not to say that the university has the right—nor should they—to prevent people from leaving the area, but they can at least trace these students. 

Currently, faculty traveling for work-related reasons must be approved by Human Resources or the Provost’s Office, but any other travel is just met with “urges [of] careful consideration,” said University Health and Counseling Services (UHCS) Director Sara Lee, M.D. She also made note that students traveling to an area on the Ohio Travel Advisory list are required to quarantine, regardless of testing results. However, other than honesty and personal research, there is nothing reminding or encouraging students to follow this protocol. 

Moreover, any individual who is traveling—regardless of whether the location is on Ohio’s Travel Advisory list—should be able to access a COVID-19 test an appropriate amount of time before leaving and after returning to Cleveland. 

As of now, CWRU does not allow anyone to be tested unless they are symptomatic or chosen for random surveillance testing. When inquiring at UHCS about how to safely travel without unknowingly transmitting the virus, their advice was to seek out testing at another institute. 

Well, let’s consider the other possibilities. Cleveland Clinic, UH, Rite Aid and CVS Pharmacy are the promoted institutes within walking distance of CWRU. Cleveland Clinic and UH, similar to CWRU, do not test asymptomatic individuals. UH has gone as far as promoting on their website that, “It’s not necessary to be tested for COVID-19 unless you have symptoms such as fever, fatigue or cough,” a seemingly problematic statement that contradicts research suggesting that 20-40% of people with coronavirus are asymptomatic.  

Rite Aid and CVS Pharmacy do offer asymptomatic testing, but require a car for their drive-thru system. This is not only a challenge for CWRU students, but also many residents in Cleveland who do not have a car, and instead rely on public transportation or a bicycle. This is another example of how vulnerable communities are not being offered the same protections or testing opportunities as more privileged and wealthy communities.  

There is only one place on the East Side of Cleveland that offers walk-in testing: Circle Health Services, previously known as the Cleveland Free Health Clinic. At Circle Health, individuals have to call, complete a medical screening and schedule an appointment—often a week ahead of time—in order to be tested.

When inquiring about the decision to not permit asymptomatic students to be tested on campus, emphasizing the incidence of asymptomatic COVID-19 cases, Lee responded, “The university is exploring options to increase testing capacity.” 

Limited laboratory capacity is commonly deployed as the reason for finite testing, however it is rarely confirmed as actual justification. Lee reported that “our partner has been quite supportive,” but did not speak more to the capacity of testing available to our university specifically. Moreover, lab capacity is yet another example of our carelessness: our failure to invest in adequate testing and lab equipment. 

As we continue to move forward in the pandemic, especially with winter and flu season approaching, it is critical that we reexamine our COVID-19 responses at the university, state and national levels. While most of us do not have the capacity to influence policy at higher levels of government, we do have the power to make informed voting choices in the upcoming local and presidential elections. Moreover, we can encourage our own university to adopt additional precautions, especially testing and tracing for individuals traveling outside of Northeast Ohio.  

Travel is, in itself, not the root of our problems. Rather, it is our determination to call people out for safely traveling to attend a social-distant wedding or funeral and limiting their access to testing, while simultaneously allowing students to remain on campus despite attending parties and failing to call out leaders who are spouting dangerous and inaccurate information about the transmission and risk of COVID-19.