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Stop ‘demonizing’ students for Covid-19, say mental health experts

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Students walk through the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on August 18, 2020 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Melissa Sue Gerrits | Getty Images

Life on college campuses in 2020 bears little resemblance to the experience most students hoped for. 

Many have remained at home to attend classes virtually. Others are back on campus to take a mix of in-person and online classes. Some were required to quarantine for several weeks once they arrived back on campus. Most are taking precautions about how they socialize with other students. 

But headlines tell a different story. Endless media coverage has pointed to wild partying both on and off campus in defiance of social distancing guidelines aimed at curbing the spread of coronavirus. And in response, many college administrators have publicly shared that they’ve taken harsh measures to crack down on this kind of behavior by suspending students or evicting those who held gatherings in student housing.

“When you look at public sentiment, I feel very strongly that college students get a bad rap for not caring about anyone and really only caring about themselves,” said Jessi Gold, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. “There’s this belief that all they want to do is go out and drink and be selfish and spread Covid-19,” she said. 

‘Surviving is different than living’

CNBC spoke to college students across the country who described this kind of behavior as the exception — not the norm. Instead, they say, many students are taking Covid-19 seriously and are forgoing opportunities to make friends through college sports or large gatherings. 

“When I first arrived on campus, I quarantined for two weeks indoors,” said Kyra Kushner, a freshman at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. “I had no physical touch, or really many friends yet, so I reached out to my building’s group chat and suggested we have a virtual game night.”

Moreover, many students say they are seeing their peers take the precautions seriously for the most part. 

“At my college, I would say that social distancing and masks are adhered to at least 90% of the time,” said Caleb Bitting, a student who recently returned to Colby College in Waterville, Maine.

These stories are a far cry from the prevailing narrative that colleges are struggling to police the behavior of young people.

In Bitting’s view, that may be true for some campuses. But he said that Colby is communicating regularly with students about lower-risk ways to socialize, such as outdoor walks. In August, the college reported that just three students and two staff-members tested positive for the virus after the school tested more than 6,000 people. In response, the school asked those three students to self-quarantine. 

Meanwhile, at the University of Alabama, where Ainsley Platt is a student, more than 2,000 students, faculty and other employees have tested positive for the virus.

Platt, who is in a sorority, said she and her sisters in the Greek community have been taking the virus seriously — and at times, it feels that they are more concerned about Covid-19 than the school itself. “I don’t see a lot of enforcement,” she said. “I see students walking around campus all the time without masks on.” 

Platt said she’d feel uncomfortable asking other students to take precautions. But she’s hoping that she won’t have to return home midway through the semester because her parents have health risks and she doesn’t want to endanger them. At home, over the summer, she spent a lot of her time indoors. “Surviving is different than living,” she said. 

Mental health professionals say it isn’t doing much good to simply blame students for outbreaks. Many of them are taking the virus seriously, but there are inevitable challenges that will arise from bringing hundreds, if not thousands, of young people back to campus. As of late, campuses are driving a large proportion of the current Covid-19 outbreaks. Earlier this week, USA Today published an analysis showing that college communities represent 19 of the the nation’s 25 hottest outbreaks.

Still, they say, colleges should communicate with students about how to stay safe while helping them get to know each other and form connections. They should also be clear about what the public health guidelines are, so that students shouldn’t have to feel they need to call each other out. 

Moreover, as Gold pointed out, many of the young adults that have been called out as the primary drivers for spreading Covid-19 are disproportionately the frontline and essential workers in many industries. Young people are more likely to work in retail or in restaurants, she said, and some of them take shifts where they can to help them pay their pricey college tuition.

“I think most students are really trying to be safe,” said Arden Wolf, who attends Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

The exception might be the freshman, who are more inclined to host parties because they don’t have many friends on campus, said Wolf. But she said her college has been quick to respond to any reports. 

One thing that her school could be doing better, she said, is sending emails about the coronavirus that are more transparent and easy to read. She also suggested that schools could provide more information on safe socializing as many are suffering from “Zoom fatigue.”

More empathy, less blame

In Wolf’s view, there’s a misconception that students, like herself, are indifferent about catching the coronavirus. Some students are themselves at risk, and may have pre-existing conditions like diabetes and asthma. Others are nervous about passing on the virus to their family members, if they found themselves suddenly returning home after an outbreak.

“I don’t want to catch the virus or give it to other people living with me,” she said. 

Mental health experts agree that college students need more empathy and less blame. Marcia Morris, a psychiatrist at the University of Florida, said that “students are struggling.”

She can’t think of any other time that life on campus was so challenging with the exception of the global recession in 2008, when a lot of families in Florida lost their homes. Morris has been working with college students since the early 90s. 

“Face-to-face socializing is critical for mental health and wellbeing,” she said.

“So what needs to happen is that campus leaders should work with the student organizations to educate students and provide safe ways for them to have social contact, whether that’s a socially distanced movie night, a walk with a friend, or a virtual event.”

Morris said that students should not be “demonized” even if they break the rules, because behavior change is unlikely to occur through such punitive methods. 

“I feel for the students, and I do see that most are trying to be careful,” she said. “These young people are suffering because they are trying to launch their lives and find out who they really are, but it’s a trying time to do that.”

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New York is running 1,000 genome tests a week to look for Covid variants

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Scientists work in a lab testing COVID-19 samples at New York City’s health department, during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in New York, April 23, 2020.

Brendan McDermid | Reuters

New York state is running about 1,000 genome tests per week to look for new, more infectious Covid variants, the state’s health commissioner, Dr. Howard Zucker, said at a press conference Friday.

“The new strains are frightening: the U.K. strain, Brazil strain, now the South Africa strain,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said at the briefing. “The U.K. strain is here.”

Zucker said the state has run about 6,000 genome tests so far and has found only the strain that originated in the U.K. New York officials have identified 25 of those cases so far, including two new cases in Westchester County and one new case in Kings County, Cuomo said. There have been no deaths among those cases, according to Zucker.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told reporters Friday there is “some evidence” the mutated strain could also be more deadly than the original one, which originated in Wuhan, China.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has previously said there’s no evidence that any of the new variants are more lethal or cause more severe illness.

When asked about the potential of a higher degree of mortality associated with the U.K. strain, Zucker said he is in contact with the U.K. science advisor and that the evidence is still preliminary.

“The fact that it’s more transmissible means that there are going to be more cases. If there are more cases, there’s more hospitalizations, and with more hospitalizations obviously there’s a risk of more deaths,” Zucker said.

Cuomo said at the briefing he hopes President Joe Biden’s new administration will ramp up vaccine production and allow for increased vaccine distribution. New York has administered at least one dose of the vaccine to more than 975,000 people as of Thursday, according to the state’s vaccine tracker.

“The U.K. strain is spreading. We still are only at 60%-70% vaccination rate of our hospital workers. This is a problem,” Cuomo said.


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United Airlines CEO wants to make Covid vaccines mandatory for employees

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A healthcare worker wears personal protective equipment (PPE) during a United Airlines Covid-19 test pilot program at Newark Liberty International Airport in Newark, New Jersey, U.S., on Monday, Nov. 16, 2020.

Angus Mordant | Bloomberg | Getty Images

United Airlines‘ CEO wants to make Covid-19 vaccines mandatory for employees and is encouraging other companies do the same.

It’s a stance that differs from other airlines and companies in other sectors like retail and auto manufacturing.

“The worst thing that I believe I will ever do in my career is the letters that I have written to the surviving family members of coworkers that we have lost to the coronavirus,” CEO Scott Kirby said at an employee town hall Thursday, a transcript of which was reviewed by CNBC. “And so, for me, because I have confidence in the safety of the vaccine – and I recognize it’s controversial – I think the right thing to do is for United Airlines, and for other companies, to require the vaccines and to make them mandatory.”

United had more than 60,000 active U.S. employees at the end of 2020 and has sent recall notices to some 17,000 other workers whose jobs were cut last year.

Kirby acknowledged logistical challenges to getting staff vaccinated.

Airline employees are considered essential workers and are likely to receive the vaccine before many people. But the rollout so far has been slow and chaotic with the nation running behind targets.

Airline executives have said widespread vaccinations will help revive air travel demand as carriers grapple with billions of dollars in losses.

“I don’t think United will get away with and can realistically be the only company that requires vaccines and makes them mandatory,” he said. “We need some others. We need some others to show leadership. Particularly in the healthcare industry.”

In the staff note, it said it’s working with government officials and health-care providers to set up vaccine distribution centers at some of its big hubs.

Some employees have been hesitant to take vaccines.

“It’s certainly a sensitive topic all the way around,” Michael Klemm, president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers District 141, which represents fleet and passenger service workers at United, said in an email. “We’ve received some frustration from members who don’t want to take the vaccine as well as concern from members who don’t want to work with someone who doesn’t take it.”

Klemm said the union members can file a grievance for any disciplinary action that results from their refusal to be vaccinated. If they object to being inoculated because of a religious belief or disability they can file complaints with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The United flight attendants’ labor union, the Association of Flight Attendants, said its focus is on ensuring vaccine access for crew members.

“Right now, Flight Attendants are in different tiers for access in each state,” AFA spokeswoman Taylor Garland said in a statement. “We need a federal approach that prioritizes Flight Attendants as essential workers facilitating interstate commerce.”

Other airlines haven’t said they plan to mandate vaccines.

Southwest Airlines last week said it does not “currently” require employees to get Covid-19 vaccines but said it strongly encouraged staff to do so.

American Airlines has a similar approach, telling employees last week that “We do not plan to require our team members to receive the vaccine unless vaccinations are ultimately mandated for entry to certain destinations.”

Delta Air Lines, meanwhile, said it is “actively working with all of the states to understand how Delta employees will be prioritized in the initial distribution of vaccines.”

The Atlanta-based carrier has encouraged employees to get vaccinated. On Wednesday the company told flight attendants their pay would be protected if they had a reaction to a vaccine that prevented them from working and that they would get an additional six hours of pay after receiving the second dose of the vaccine, according to a staff note seen by CNBC.

United told employees in a staff note this week to get vaccinated as soon as possible and not to wait for guidance from the airline.

Some companies are trying to persuade workers to get the vaccine by offering additional pay. Yogurt and food company Chobani said it will give employees in its manufacturing plants and offices up to six hours of paid time to get the two vaccinations.

So far, some retailers like Aldi, Lidl and Dollar General, have announced similar plans to offer extra pay. Aldi said it would also like to open on-site vaccination clinics at its warehouses and offices to make it easy for workers to get the shots and eliminate the obstacles of getting child care or finding transportation.


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Streaming services help keep some blockbusters locked on movie calendar

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Still from “Raya and the Last Dragon.”

Disney

The box-office calendar is shifting once again. In the last day more than a dozen Hollywood titles have been displaced from the slate, moving to later in the year or into 2022, due to the Covid pandemic.

Cinema owners, who in December hoped to hold out until March for a slew of new blockbuster features, are watching as Sony, Disney and MGM postpone major films.

On Thursday, the latest James Bond flick, MGM’s “No Time to Die,” was pushed from April to October, Sony’s “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” was moved to November, and Sony’s “Morbius” and “Uncharted” exited to 2022. On Friday, Disney shifted a half-dozen films, including “The King’s Man,” later into the year or removed them from the calendar entirely.

The few films that remain in February and March are tied to streaming releases. AT&T/Warner Bros.’ “Tom and Jerry” heads to HBO Max and theaters on Feb. 26, Disney’s “Raya and the Last Dragon” will debut in theaters and on Disney+ for $30 on March 5, and AT&T/Warner Bros.’ “Godzilla v. Kong” hits HBO Max and cinemas on March 26.

Lions Gate‘s “Chaos Walking” is the only major film release without a day-and-date streaming plan.

“[Warner Bros.] made the right move all along,” said Jeff Bock, senior analyst at Exhibitor Relations. “They may have not cleared it through the proper channels, and may have ruffled some feathers in the process, but make no mistake, WB is the only studio other than Disney that is really bolstering itself and theaters simultaneously in a way that is safe and responsible.”

The U.S. is recording at least 187,500 new Covid-19 cases and at least 3,050 virus-related deaths each day, based on a seven-day average calculated by CNBC using Johns Hopkins University data.

While President Joe Biden has promised to expedite vaccines across the country, only around 17.5 million doses have been administered so far.

Studios are worried that continued increases in coronavirus cases will keep moviegoers away from cinemas even with new titles playing on big screens. Many of these films have large production budgets and rely on strong ticket sales to break even.

However, studios that have streaming services have a safety net, Bock said. For Warner Bros. the dual release in theaters and on HBO Max allows it to bolster subscriber sign-ups and make money from ticket sales.

It’s unclear how successful that strategy has been, as “Wonder Woman 1984” is, so far, the only Warner Bros. film to be released in this fashion. AT&T is set to report quarterly earnings next week, so analysts will likely get a better sense of how the film performed for the company then.

Disney’s release of “Raya and the Last Dragon” is also a first. Previously, the company had released “Mulan” on Disney+ for a $30 premium but did not release it in theaters at the same time. Disney has yet to comment on how “Mulan” performed for the company.

“It’s going to be tough sledding for theaters,” Bock said. “[They] will have to rely on indie distributors until at least May.”

Disclosure: NBCUniversal is the parent company of Universal Studios and CNBC. Universal is releasing “No Time To Die” internationally, while MGM handles the domestic release.


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