Deaths Among Senior Citizens to Follow if College Parties Continue, Says Linda Vail

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Gary Caldwell for ELi

Sparrow Hospital's emergency entrance.

At a press briefing on Tuesday afternoon, Ingham County Health Officer Linda Vail said if MSU students continue to party and contract COVID-19 now, the area can expect to see deaths follow in November and December.

Vail made her statement in response to a question asking the biggest takeaways in her experience addressing the pandemic so far.

“Wear a mask, avoid large indoor gatherings, avoid large outdoor gatherings, stay home when sick,” she said. She called these methods “remarkably effective” but noted that “people don’t want to believe the science.”

She stated that young people may see the data and (rightly) conclude that they are fairly unlikely to get seriously ill or to die. No one under age 50 in Ingham County has died from the illness. But, she emphasized, more young people contracting the virus can lead to increased community spread.

Vail pointed to statistics following the opening of bars and restaurants in the area in June. Positive tests spiked in late June and July. Ten deaths followed in August.

“Maybe there wasn’t direct contact, but increased prevalence,” said Vail.

Referring to the 124 student cases identified by MSU in the last week, Vail said, “Sicker, older people will get it and die.”

ELi reported yesterday that student partying continued with largely unmasked crowds this past weekend despite educational efforts by both MSU and the City to promote mask wearing.

At yesterday’s press event, Vail did not mince words, plainly calling on students to stop partying.

“We need you not to party,” she said. “We need you to follow these rules.”

She encouraged college housemates, including those living in fraternities and sororities, to wear masks indoors and not interact as though they are one family unit.

MSU’s Interfraternity Council – which includes recognized fraternities and sororities at MSU – recently failed to pass a moratorium on large social events. MSU’s administration called it “disappointing that some [Greek] organizations and members do not see the importance of being a positive example of leadership in mitigating the spread of COVID-19 within our community.”

Vail admitted that local regulations now limiting outdoor events to 25 people and indoor ones to 10 still leave possibilities for transmission of the virus. Individuals cannot be cited or fined simply for attending a party with fewer than 26 people outdoors, but that does not mean it is safe.

In interactions with younger East Lansing residents, the ELi reporting team has found that many justify their unmasked, alcohol-fueled gatherings – which often involve no social distancing and plenty of shouting – by saying they are following the 25-person limit.

Vail does not believe that the current surge in numbers can be attributed to just one event. Instead, many smaller gatherings and students moving among gatherings appear to be responsible for making 48823 the Ingham County zip code with the most cases.

Referring to anecdotal evidence from written reports, Vail said students were moving from party to party in East Lansing and also have traveled to events at other universities. One MSU case may be linked to a party at Grand Valley State University.

When asked if she would institute additional public health measures for East Lansing or extend the gathering limit to the rest of Ingham County, Vail said she would not yet.

She wants to consider how successful enforcement measures have been in East Lansing and how they might be improved before considering further restrictions.

Vail also had words of caution for East Lansing and other area schools that will permit fall sports — football, volleyball, swimming and diving, and soccer — to go on. Although athletes (except while swimming) will be masked and spectators limited, Vail said contact sports were dangerous during the pandemic, pointing to outbreaks among MSU athletes over the summer.

She suggested that issues of equity are also at play. Wealthier districts simply have more resources to prevent and handle an outbreak than poorer ones.

“It’s a terrible idea,” Vail quoted herself as saying to an area superintendent who sought her advice.

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