Students returning to campus is ‘like firebombing college towns’

The decision to allow 19 million students to return to university has been likened to “firebombing” university college towns. 

Tom Bossert, an American lawyer and former homeland security advisor to US President Donald Trump, said policymakers should review their policies around schools and universities in light of the most recent evidence.

Speaking at the APCIA Virtual Annual Meeting in a session called “The Pandemic Puzzle”, Bossert admitted the US has made mistakes in its handling of COVID-19, and particularly its policies with regard to children.

He stressed it is still too early to be confident that children do not spread the virus, noting that “the absence of evidence is not the same as the evidence of absence”. 

More children have probably had COVID-19 than official figures suggest, Bossert argued, with most displaying mild or no symptoms, but still passing the virus on to adult family members. 

Bossert also highlighted mistakes made in the first months of 2020, when the US failed to heed warning signs that the virus being seen in China could turn into a global pandemic.

He pointed to an increasingly laissez-faire attitude towards COVID-19 testing in the US, which he admitted is understandable, given the inconvenience around self-isolating and the resulting challenges for work and family life. 

But, he insisted, it is not too late for people to start taking the threat more seriously.  

Bossert warned that people who are expecting a vaccine early next year to quickly eradicate the virus are likely to be disappointed. Outbreaks will likely persist for some time even after the population starts being vaccinated, he said. 

Rather than a sudden end to the pandemic, a vaccine will be the start of “a slow and constant reduction of risk,” Bossert said.

“People who are expecting a vaccine early next year to quickly eradicate the virus are likely to be disappointed.”

Tom Bossert

More pain to come

Bossert served under President George W. Bush, and noted that the administration at that time had been particularly concerned about the possibility of a global pandemic. The work done then had been “eerily dead-on” in its assumptions, Bossert said. 

However, nobody had fully appreciated the scale of the challenge around detecting a virus with such subtle symptoms, he added. 

Bossert said he did support new lockdown measures in the US, but argued these should be targeted at specific regions and activities, rather than imposed as blanket measures across the country. He stressed people should continue to avoid large gatherings and should wear masks, get tested if they displayed any symptoms and be prepared to self-isolate. 

Bossert dismissed the notion that older and more vulnerable people could be isolated while the rest of the economy returned to normal, calling moves to follow such a plan “a fool’s errand”. 

Delegates should prepare for more pain for the US economy in coming months as COVID-19 continues to take its toll, Bossert concluded. Airlines in particular could suffer if other countries block travel from the US, he said. 

Main image: / Jen Wolf