Q&A: Stanford medical professor says ‘those who can stay home, should stay home’ when it comes to campus reopening

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The Daily sat down with Stanford clinical professor of medicine Malathi Srinivasan to discuss her opinions regarding college reopenings during the pandemic. Among her many roles, Srinivasan is the associate director at the Stanford Center for Asian Health Research and Education (CARE) and a fellow at the Stanford Center for Innovation in Global Health (CIGH). She researches clinical health, global decision making, doctor-patient communication and scalable technologies for health care. The interview took place prior to the University’s cancellation of nearly all in-person instruction and on-campus housing.

The Stanford Daily [TSD]: Colleges have adopted new guidelines and policies to ensure a safe return, such as testing, contact tracing, isolation and restricting campus housing by class cohort. Is this enough? What are your opinions on colleges reopening? 

Malathi Srinivasan [MS]: Do you wait until you have a vaccine until the next year and hope that the vaccine is appropriately effective and revaccinate people in the six billion doses that we need over time? Or do you try and do the best we can and try to preserve some variation of a college experience and focus on learning academic content knowing that the networks and the other social portions will come later, and all we’ve got to do is sit tight for a year or two? All of this is a big natural experiment, and we don’t have the answers to those things.

I personally think that those who can stay home, should stay home. I understand all the reasons people want to reopen. If I was in college I would want to enjoy those things that make college amazing. 

I think we can create a portion of that with online distance education if people pay attention and they do it well. I think that time and trust is how we build these online systems that provide some of that connection that you would otherwise have with people. It doesn’t give you the randomness of the collegiate experience… But there is a time for that, and this is not that time. 

TSD: Should colleges reopen at this time? 

MS: We should not open unless we really need to. I say we just change our standards and be able to be more flexible with what we expect from people and trust that it’s all going to work out in a couple of years. When you’re younger the developmental milestones you need to hit don’t need to be hit at any particular time. You can learn lots of things at any age. Defer this freeform experience of college and socialization till we are all safe, and use that time to learn other skills and do things that would be unable to be done if we were all congregated together. 

TSD: Do you think colleges will be able to control students who are congregating, like having parties and not social distancing? 

MS: It depends on how responsible the students are and also it depends on what the consequences are. If you want to have a system that discourages people from congregating inappropriately and not following distancing rules, then you need people who are going to check it out. How do you do that in a way that feels nurturing, that doesn’t feel prohibitive, or should it be prohibitive? Should it be in some way harsh because it’s such an important thing to keep everybody safe? 

Again, this isn’t forever, it’s just for a year or two. A year or two is different than a lifetime, and I think we have to be patient and trust that the scientists who are working on these issues are doing so diligently and with their whole heart and all their focus, which everybody is.  

TSD: Will colleges be able to rely on the testing, tracing and treating strategy to prevent an outbreak?

MS: No, we can’t, because we don’t have enough testing. The way you need to do it is test people frequently, you need to get the results back right away, and then if they are infected you need to have them quarantine and then trace their contacts. So what’s happening now? You don’t feel well or you want to get tested, you wait one to four days for an appointment and it takes two to three days to get your results back, sometimes more. 

TSD: What will it look like when students go back campuses and there is not enough testing?

MS: I don’t know. It depends on how well people quarantine. I think we can minimize the number of people who come back, we can minimize the contact, improve the ventilation of the dormitories, have everybody have their own bathroom, clean everything on a routine regular basis and practice good hand hygiene. 

While the science is moving along towards appropriate treatment, and hopefully vaccination, then I think that there is a chance that this won’t be a disaster, but is there a potential for a severe outbreak and multiple people getting sick. 

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

This article has been corrected to reflect that CARE is the Center for Asian Health Research and Education. A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that CARE was an acronym for the Center for Asian Healthcare Research and Education. The Daily regrets this error.

Contact Jesse Perlmutter at jesseperl24 ‘at’ gmail.com.

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Jesse Perlmutter is a high schooler writing as part of The Daily’s Summer Journalism Workshop.