COVID-19 is not the only public health risk affecting campus communities, and some students and healthcare professionals are bracing for the spread of other illnesses in the fall.
The University of Minnesota announced that there would be mixed in-person instruction, open recreational facilities and the opportunity for in-person student group experiences this upcoming fall. However, fewer people are going to the doctor for regular checkups and vaccinations due to the pandemic. The consequences of less frequent checkups may increase the spread of preventable illnesses.
According to the Minnesota Medical Association, 70–80% of people up to the age of 18 have forgone regularly scheduled check-ups and vaccinations since the pandemic began. Many people have seen regular appointments canceled or deferred, and others are still nervous about going to the doctor.
“I know the COVID-19 pandemic has a lot of patients nervous, but now is not the time to stop getting important vaccinations,” Minnesota Academy of Family Physicians President Renee Crichlow said in a press release.
Dr. Mark Schleiss is a professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School and has spent the last 30 years of his career studying vaccines. His lab has been working on coronavirus vaccines for the last few months, and he said that COVID-19 is like nothing he has ever seen before.
If people continue to avoid going to the doctor, the University community may see a large number of students who have not received all their vaccinations in the coming years, Schleiss said. There may also be a spike in cases of illnesses like measles or influenza.
“Depending on how long this pandemic lasts and how long standing the imprint is … five years from now, we may have a large number of under-immunized students,” Schleiss said.
It is important to remember that COVID-19 is a disease of disparities, Schleiss said. Like many other kinds of illnesses that are easily communicable, low-income and minority communities often bear the brunt of infection rates.
“I’d like to think we all can become experts in advocacy,” Scleiss said. “I would appeal to students, professors and employees to engage in advocacy.”
Dr. Edwin Bogonko works in internal medicine and said herd immunity is an important piece in dealing with community health. Vaccinations are a “great equalizer” for groups historically hit the hardest by illnesses, but people also have to do their part in avoiding public spaces, he said.
“The new superspreaders are young people,” Bogonko said. “If you create an environment where young people are unchecked, it could spread in a community in an incredibly rapid manner.”
Bogonko said he is urging people to practice good health and protect themselves and their communities. He said doctors are also trying to do their part in educating patients, but many people are hesitant to go to the doctor right now.
“I think that it’s very clear that there has been a significant fear around the coronavirus,” Bogonko said. “People who would regularly go to the hospital are afraid to go to the clinic or hospital because they will be exposed to the virus.”
Sofia Consing, president of the Philippine Student Association, said her organization is currently figuring out how to move events online for the upcoming semester. PSA’s goal is to host virtual advocacy and cultural workshops over Zoom. While the University said student groups can meet in person, Consing said that PSA will prioritize safety first.
“I think it’s honestly kind of scary and harmful if we were to come back,” Consing said. “A lot of people are saying we’re entering our second wave of COVID-19. However, we’re not really done with the first.”
While many students are knowledgeable about political issues, not everyone may realize public health issues like the coronavirus affect marginalized communities the most, Cosing said. She said students should continue to socially distance on campus, and that she will be doing her part.
“If they really care about issues that affect underserved communities, they should be leading by example and staying in,” Consing said.