Local expert: Colleges must weigh campus experience vs. Covid risk

By Updated: May 07, 2020 5:53 PM CT | Published: May 07, 2020 11:21 AM CT
<strong>&ldquo;You’re not going to have spectators at Neyland Stadium this year,&rdquo;&nbsp; said Dr. Jon McCullers. The Knoxville stadium was full of fans in September 2019 when Chattanooga played UT Knoxville.</strong> (Wade Payne/AP file)

“You’re not going to have spectators at Neyland Stadium this year,”  said Dr. Jon McCullers. The Knoxville stadium was full of fans in September 2019 when Chattanooga played UT Knoxville. (Wade Payne/AP file)

Dr. Jon McCullers – associate dean at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center who leads a task force to study how to safely open the state university system this fall – said Thursday that “You’re not going to have spectators at Neyland Stadium this year.”

McCullers made it clear he is not responsible for making that decision. But in an interview on The Geoff Calkins Show on 92.9FM, McCullers said, on the subject of fans in Neyland Stadium, “That’s just not going to happen. Whether people want to think it will or not – it’s not going to happen. The question is: Do we play football without spectators? Interestingly, I’m being told that’s going to be a conference decision and that the university presidents are going to abide by what the conference decides. It will be really interesting if some conferences say they are going to have football and maybe the SEC does and just plays each other. The landscape is really fascinating.”

“You’re not going to have spectators in Neyland Stadium this year. That’s just not going to happen. Whether people want to think it will or not – it’s not going to happen." 

The larger challenge, which McCullers and the task force are wrangling with, is how to safely bring students back to campus. Randy Boyd, president of the university, announced Wednesday that the school is planning to bring students back in the fall. 

“We know that if we send the undergrads back to a campus, 30,000 kids put into this fishbowl, that we are going to see disease,” McCullers said. “They are going to pass this virus back and forth between each other. We are probably going to see severe disease and maybe deaths in this case.

“If you look at the raw statistics, you would expect a major, land-grant university like UT to have one, or two, or three deaths during the year from COVID-19.”

It’s a statistical outlook that weighs heavily on the decision whether to send students back. The question becomes: Is there a value to the education and experience that makes that risk worthwhile?

“Most of us think it is,” McCullers said. “We are still well enrolled and many people want to come to campus and want to do this, but for the administrators and the president, that’s a tough thing to do.”


Calkins: No, there won’t be football


There’s no question it will be different. The University of Tennessee is also looking into quarantine dorms to keep students who might get sick and hybrid classes that could limit face-to-face interaction.

“The biggest problem (with schools) is the staff and teachers working there and kids bringing it back to Grandma,” McCullers said. “The kids are going to be fine for the most part. … You can’t make fourth-graders social distance. It’s just not going to work.

“… The other thing is, we can’t have a functioning economy if we take kids out of school for two years. It’s driving everybody crazy now. Imagine this for two more years.”

McCullers was generally upbeat about the progress of Shelby County in containing COVID-19, and the gradual reopening of the economy this week.

<strong>Jon McCullers</strong>

Jon McCullers

“By all reports (reopening) has gone well the first few days, and we’ve seen people taking appropriate precautions,” said McCullers. “We think that if everyone is taking appropriate precautions – as they’ve been doing the last few weeks – that this isn’t really going to impact our overall caseload.”

The hope is that the data in two weeks reflect the same. It is not necessarily inevitable that the number of cases goes up, according to McCullers.

He is one of the primary healthcare leaders in Shelby County providing data and advising Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland and county Mayor Lee Harris in decisions, such as the stay-at-home orders they issued earlier in the outbreak and now the decision to slowly return people in nonessential jobs back to work.


When and how will Memphis reopen? Answers are not pretty or clear cut


“I guess that depends on how much virus you think is out there,” McCullers said. “We’re seeing 60, 70, 80 cases per day on average for the last two weeks. If those are the only cases that are out there, and they are in family clusters, then there isn’t much risk going out and doing a little bit more.

“If you believe there’s 10 times as much virus and it’s equally distributed, as opposed to clusters, then maybe we are going to see the numbers go up. I’ve opined for a couple of weeks that, yeah, I expect to see the numbers go up and then maybe settle in to a new normal. … But we might not.”

He also thinks that there are probably four to five times as many cases in the city than are being reported. That would mean much more than 75 per day, but still not an extreme amount for a metro population of 1.4 million.

“Say there’s 300 a day,” McCullers said. “… Four to five times seems like a lot, but when you have that many over a broader population and it’s clustering in points, then maybe it’s not that widespread.”

 “We know that if we send the undergrads back to a campus, 30,000 kids put into this fishbowl, that we are going to see disease. They are going to pass this virus back and forth between each other. We are probably going to see severe disease and maybe deaths in this case."

That does not mean, however, that a second wave of the virus is not possible. It is, especially as larger numbers of people begin to gather again.

If that were to happen, McCullers believes the plan for dealing with the virus a second time could look a lot different.

“I think as we get into the school year and the fall and we see a second wave, the next phase of this is not going to be to shut everything down across society,” McCullers said. “It will be a more targeted shutdown. It’s going to be, ‘Let’s really increase our efforts around the high-risk. Let’s protect the elderly and the over-60. Protect those with chronic health conditions or immunocompromised, and not do so much for the young people, who for the most part are the drivers of the economy. I think we will take a different approach from the blanket shutdown.”


Surge prediction pushed to summer, broad compliance seen with ‘Back to Business’


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Jon McCullers coronavirus University of Tennessee COVID-19 Reopen sports
Drew Hill

Drew Hill

Drew Hill covers Memphis Tigers basketball and is an AP Top 25 voter. He’s worked throughout the South writing about college athletics before landing in Memphis.


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