Sprinting to Keep Up

We've begun saliva testing with Vanderbilt researchers, upgraded our COVID-19 tracker, and are hopeful that families will make responsible decisions during Thanksgiving Break so that students can continue learning on campus through December.
The wider community case numbers continue to climb. The vaccine news provides cause for optimism, but probably in a matter of months, not weeks—and I’ll be at the front of the line appealing for teachers to be designated front-line workers. So for the moment, our best efforts need to focus on what’s within our direct reach. Consider a few cases in point:
First, have you noticed our COVID-19 tracker, one click in from the USN homepage? We decided late last week to include the number of those quarantined students and grownups restricted from being on campus after contact tracing, and the inclusion was intentional. While our active case counts remain miraculously low, in light of trends statewide, the last thing we’d want to suggest is that being at USN somehow conveyed a magical immunity. Past that, each new case, and they are still almost entirely asymptomatic at the time of discovery, typically sidelines one or two dozen other people, as we follow CDC guidelines to the letter. Bottom line, and conscious of the repetition—each of our actions affects the lives of others, however much we’d hope that would not be the case.
Also worth mention is the public nature of our tracker data. We’re doing what our university neighbors tend to do, providing a window on our experience for anyone who inquires. We as a city are in this together as well, and I hope other schools/organizations will open that window in turn, in the interest of public health. Ultimately, we benefit from acknowledging the benefits of a shared data set.
On that note, we were grateful to begin the VUMC saliva study last week, with more than 100 faculty and staff participating, with no positive tests emerging, and this week the even larger follow-up round generated 130 samples—all encouragingly negative. Next up will be those High School students who choose to participate, and we’re working hard to energize that group to help with this important project. Every one of us is presented with choices large and small with the potential to make a healthful difference.
One specific choice, and I hope you’re still reading, is to stay home and keep family members home if anyone in your household is awaiting COVID-19 testing results while experiencing symptoms. While the likelihood of a positive result is statistically small, the consequences of ignoring those symptoms can radiate out to many other households. This much we know and have seen.
The undeniable message here in mid-November is twofold—we’re seeing steady increases in COVID-19 case numbers nationally, essentially as forecast months ago, but we know what a huge difference basic, consistent, unwavering mitigation efforts can confer. A recent study published in Nature underscores the predictable reality of virus transmission. Which leads us to the topic of our three-day Thanksgiving school holiday, so close and still so far away.
There are reasons we did not create a 10-day vacation this month. We cherish every day here on campus together, and we won’t take a single one for granted. We don’t want to unintentionally telegraph a message that we think people should pack up and travel in some preemptive way, worried that December might be worse. We want to preserve the continuity of the progress we’ve made here since kindergartners were the first to resume in-person back on September 8. And we want the best chance for being together in December.
What that means for your plans will need to be sorted out across your kitchen table. Some travel, as I tried to suggest in advance of Fall Break, can be much safer than some choices while remaining here in Nashville. Yet it’s hard to be sanguine about airports and all that goes with them, given the crowds that typically assemble there for Turkey Day. And once we arrive at some far-flung destination, how much control do we have about numbers there, whether in that community or in that living room? Please, please think things through ahead of time, with caution as your watchword.
We’re immersed in a national test of our willingness to forgo what we’d hope for today in exchange for genuine optimism about tomorrow, or next week, or next month. Don’t underestimate the degree to which your choices generate ripple effects, beneficial and not so beneficial. With the recent vaccine efficacy announcements, it’s easier to see an end to all we’ve been asking of ourselves and one another. Time to finish this year strong.
This stuff may be simple, but it’s not easy.
Let’s stay safe and well,
Vince Durnan

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