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Editorial | Island Voices

Column: College students returning home could bring virus with them

  • Cameron Deptula, UC-Berkeley student.

    Cameron Deptula, UC-Berkeley student.

Thanks to the growing number of COVID-19 outbreaks in the U.S., many universities in areas hardest hit by the virus have made choices to cancel in-person classes. This is a smart policy choice, though some colleges have also forced students to return home last week, which could worsen the spread of the virus to other areas of the U.S., including Hawaii.

We must all prepare for an uptick in cases at home.

As a current student at the University of California at Berkeley, I am living through some of my school’s social-distancing measures. My classmates and I have been spending our days staying home and “attending” lectures online, thanks also in part to the Bay Area’s mandatory shelter-in-place order.

My school has implemented a relatively tame measure compared to the decisions of many universities that my former high-school classmates attend. Many mainland colleges such as Amherst, MIT, Harvard and Yale hastily closed down dorms last weekend, forcing students home for the semester.

Many of my Hawaii friends who are in college, myself included, were considering canceling spring break plans (UC-Berkeley’s break is March 21-29). Given the number of coronavirus cases, there are not many people who want to spend six to 12 hours in a plane. However, if students are being forced home to Hawaii, the travel that many may not have initially taken is all but guaranteed — returning into the open arms of their families.

Family potlucks and meals with Tutu are a cherished part of Hawaii’s family life. After a long time away at school, I certainly look forward to seeing my family, and eating a large meal together — it’s just what we do.

However, the sudden influx of students returning home from school — including from areas where the coronavirus has hit hardest, such as Seattle, Boston, the Bay Area and NYC — may unwittingly carry viruses into Hawaii.

If this is the case, a small family reunion with Tutu could turn into a tragedy. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that older adults and those with underlying health conditions are most at risk of becoming seriously ill from a COVID-19 infection.

An influx of travelers from areas with active coronavirus transmission could be dangerous to the broader public as well, as Hawaii’s population boasts the nation’s seventh-largest proportion of older adults aged 65-plus.

So, what should we do?

Whether or not coronavirus spreads further due to student travel, we as a community must take proactive and decisive steps to mitigate the future risk of transmitting coronavirus in our communities.

Our public health officials have been clear about personal measures that everyone can take, but social distancing has been modeled as the superior social mechanism to mitigate COVID-19 spread. We should not have to wait for restaurants, bars and stores to be closed by state officials to all do our part.

Another crucial, though rarely discussed step, may just be showing each other aloha. It’s especially important to reach out to our kupuna. Treating others with respect and consideration will help us get through this together.

While our numbers are low now, Hawaii could just be a week away from what I have experienced in the Bay Area. One case of COVID-19 can eventually lead to an entire region being forced to shut down, and large numbers of my fellow returning college students may increase the likelihood of this spread in our communities.

In light of this, we all need to do our parts to mitigate the spread of coronavirus while we can, especially for our most vulnerable populations.


Cameron Deptula, of Mililani, is a University of California-Berkeley student who experienced the coronavirus lockdown measures on the mainland.


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