Appalachia’s ‘Young Invincibles’ Have Returned to College Campuses Across the Region

College students with the assistance of family begin moving in for the fall semester at N.C. State University in Raleigh, N.C., Friday, July 31, 2020. The return of students was staggered over 10 days and students were greeted Friday by socially distant volunteers donning masks and face shields. Photo: Gerry Broome/AP Photo

In late July, having just completed a summer fellowship at a community health center in eastern North Carolina, Sam Lidsky was preparing to enter medical school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, Lidsky, 23, has taken considerable precautions in both his private and professional life.

His father has several medical conditions that place him at high risk of severe illness from the virus and their interactions were limited to occasional socially distanced picnics at a park halfway between his father’s home in Wilmington and Lidsky’s workplace. After Lidsky completed his fellowship, he quarantined for two weeks in time to celebrate his dad’s 70 birthday.

On the job, Lidsky faced risks. There was a shortage of personal protective equipment; he would sometimes have to wear the same mask for several days. He adhered to every precaution.

Despite his age, Lidsky is not among the people California’s Gov. Gavin Newsome referred to in July as the “young invincibles,” those who “don’t feel [COVID-19 is] going to impact them and if it does, it’s not a big burden.”

The number of young people contracting the virus began to rise in early summer. Public-health experts suggested that a primary reason for the spike was the reopening of social gathering spots, like bars and restaurants, especially in southern Appalachia and the South in general. People also began returning to their workplaces. And now young people are returning to school.

The risk manifests over time. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that up to 50 percent of the spread of the virus occurs before symptoms arise. It may then be a couple of weeks before a person infected becomes sick.

Moreover, CDC Director Robert Redfield has said that many infections go undiagnosed. “Our best estimate right now is that for every case that was reported, there actually were 10 other infections,” he said.

In his work at the health center, Lidsky encountered young people who qualified for Newsome’s “invincible” designation; he talked with those unwilling to make even minimal concessions. But, he said, they were not in the majority. Generally speaking, he found that when he had the opportunity to speak with young folks one on one – addressing the pandemic not as an abstraction but as a very real danger – they were receptive and attentive.

Classes began on campus at UNC earlier this month, despite the protests of a substantial number of faculty, parents and students. Lidsky returned, settling in near campus in the town of Carrboro as his university put certain social-distancing measures in place, including spacing in classrooms and partially vacant dorms.

As of this past weekend, UNC had reported 1,025 cases of COVID-19, of which 971 were students. Multiple clusters of cases were reported in eight residence halls and students were sent home to complete their semesters online. At UNC – as on campuses and in elementary and secondary school buildings across the country – invincibility is being put to test.

‘College Students Are College Students’

Freshman Sarah Anne Cook carries her blongings as she packs to leave campus following a cluster of COVID-19 cases at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, N.C., Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020. The university announced that it would cancel all in-person undergraduate learning starting on Wednesday while some students chose to pack and leave. Photo: Gerry Broome/AP Photo

The headline of the Aug. 16 editorial in The Daily Tar Heel, UNC’s student-run newspaper, read: “UNC has a clusterf**k on its hands.” Immediately after the start of classes, COVID-19 cases began emerging from dorm rooms, a fraternity house and apartments.

The day after the editorial appeared, university administrators announced that it was taking measures to “de-densify campus,” moving all undergraduate classes to remote learning.

In-person classes are still being convened at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, another of the 17 schools in the University of North Carolina system, but Jeffrey Bortz, a history professor, predicts this will soon change.

Bortz is a member of the faculty senate, which two weeks ago passed a resolution of no confidence in Chancellor Sheri Everts. As of the weekend, the school had reported 231 cases. 

Bortz said that most students he’s spoken with share the faculty’s concerns over health and safety on campus. Still, he said, “College students are college students. I’m an historian, and I think college students have been college students since Bologna in 1088.”

The Long Term

In early August, Duncan Mills, 19, was, like Sam Lidsky, preparing for fall classes to begin at UNC. After the administration shut down the campus in the spring, Mills spent a couple of months with his parents and sister at their home in Asheville.

As time wore on, he found himself getting anxious or annoyed over things – in interactions with family and friends – that normally wouldn’t bother him.

In July, he moved back into his off-campus fraternity house, and his anxieties vanished. He attended a few social gatherings, but mostly interacted with the same group of people.

Duncan Mills. Photo: Provided

Mills isn’t taking extreme precautions in his everyday interactions with that small group. But he said he does know that while if he contracted the virus the odds are he’d recover easily, he’s fully aware of the threat he could pose to others more vulnerable. He believes that most of those with whom he associates are likewise aware and, for the most part, precautious. He’s followed guidelines like wearing masks in public and will continue to do so as long as the virus is a threat. He questions, however, to what extent that’ll be enough.

“I’m living in a fraternity house, which is a big social spot, and there’s no way that people won’t end up going there,” Mills said. “It’s gonna be a weird fall.”

Hard to Get the Truth

Jayden Foley, 18, from Pineville, Kentucky, is a freshman at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. Through the spring and summer, she lived with her parents and grandmother. Foley has an autoimmune disease and her parents were strict about following public-health guidelines, but she has mixed feelings about those precautions.

“I agree that everyone should try to keep each other safe, but some of the restrictions that are being put in place could be contributing more harm to people then helping,” she said. “I don’t really think a mask should be required.”

While going through leadership and service orientation at UK, Foley said she began feeling dizzy and out of breath behind her mask. “Being in a leadership role, how am I supposed to ask for accommodations to take off my mask when that’s the rule, and as a leader I’m supposed to follow the rules?”

Her biggest concern moving forward is for getting schools and businesses fully reopened.

“We have to live our lives. We have to fight this virus and not run anymore,” Foley said. “And I feel that the only true way to get immune to something is to come into contact with it.”

She’s also concerned about the accuracy of the information she receives. “I hear people say they only watch Fox News or only watch CNN because the other one doesn’t tell the truth,” Foley said. “It’s just hard to know what we can believe.”

Misinformation about the pandemic abounds, and it’s small wonder so many people, of all ages, believe it’s a hoax. But a Pew Research poll on Americans receptiveness to COVID-19 conspiracy theories revealed an interesting counterbalance to the young invincible narrative: 18- to 29-year-olds were more likely than all other age groups to say that any claim that the outbreak was intentionally planned is either probably or definitely not true

Signage requiring face coverings are seen at the entrance to the Talley Student Union during a media tour of North Carolina State University’s COVID-19 preparations for the fall semester in Raleigh, N.C., Wednesday, July 22, 2020. Photo: Gerry Broome/AP Photo

In another Pew poll, nearly a third of 18- to 29-year-olds said the pandemic has been made a “smaller deal” than it actually is, also a higher percentage than any other age group.

That same age group is also most likely to say the Trump administration gets the facts right about the coronavirus pandemic “only some of the time or hardly ever.”

Haley Elkins, 14, of Beckley, West Virginia, believes that social distancing and other precautions are fully warranted. She’s discussed the issue with a few adults who don’t agree with her and said they can generally come to a reasonable middle ground. But she’s also been told, “Well, we can agree to disagree.” 

“But you can’t agree to disagree on people’s lives and how people are going to survive,” Elkins said.

Mixed Messages

John Ray Roberts worries about his family from afar.

Roberts, 29, grew up in Madisonville, a small town in eastern Tennessee near the North Carolina border. He’s now a chaplain at The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina. His immediate family still lives in Madisonville.

Roberts’ mother works in geriatric care, a high-risk occupation in the pandemic, and has had health issues that also put her at heightened risk. His grandfather likewise has health concerns. Roberts hasn’t seen them since the outbreak began in March.

John Ray Roberts. Photo: Provided

His brother, Jacob Roberts, is 10 years younger. Jacob has worked at a Food Lion grocery store in his hometown throughout the pandemic. He’d planned to attend Maryville College this fall, but the pandemic has exerted a financial strain on the family. Though Jacob observes every precaution, his brother worries about his health as well.

Roberts points out that a good percentage of the young people who are perceived as being cavalier in their response to the pandemic, the “invincibles,” are also counted among our “essential workers,” so many of whom are put at risk on the job. Or they’re students, being clustered in classrooms and dorms. There’s the suggestion that they can’t be trusted, even as they’re ushered into high-risk environments.

As of Monday, the Lexington-Fayette County Health Department reported at least 630 cases of COVID-19 among University of Kentucky students since the university began testing on Aug. 3. The university is holding both in-person and online courses this fall, with many a hybrid of both.

Lidsky reports that he’s been impressed with the efforts his UNC instructors have taken to make the best of the current situation. Moving undergrad courses online, he said, was “quite clearly necessary.”

But at universities across Appalachia, the experiment continues. What’s for certain, though, is that no one is invincible.

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