FILE - University of Illinois

Students mingle on the Quad of the University of Illinois college campus in Urbana-Champaign in 2011.

(The Center Square) – A University of Illinois professor is warning of a possible “public health tsunami” as students return to campus in small and medium-sized university towns.

Dr. Sheldon Jacobson is a professor of computer science. He said cities with higher education institutions such as DeKalb, Macomb, Charleston and Galesburg could get hit hard as students return to campus.

“I would estimate based on the data I have seen that when students show up on campuses, somewhere between 2 and 7 percent of them are going to be testing positive,” Jacobson said.

Jacobson said he believes a majority of students who get infected with COVID-19 will be either asymptomatic or have mild symptoms. The primary risk is not with poor outcomes, but rather for transmitting the virus to others in the community. This would put host community health care systems at risk.

Jacobson said it is imperative that university administrations include their host community leaders and hospital administrators in fall opening plans to ensure that all stakeholders understand the risks and best strategies for managing and mitigating such risks. He added that once the students arrive, there is no going back.

“Once they are there, this is a one-way street, this is not something that university towns can back out of,” Jacobson said. “They can’t simply send the students away.”

University officials have been working to craft plans for the fall that take into account a host of factors and have made safety the top priority. Many of those university plans are works in progress that change to comply with the latest local, state and federal guidelines.

"We are engaging with faculty and staff to address final elements of our health and safety protocols that will ensure that we will be able to provide the best quality educational experience to all students in these challenging times," Interim Western Illinois University President Martin Abraham said.

University and host community partnerships can facilitate a smoother outcome and successful campus reopening for all, Jacobson said. 

“Without such cooperation, the town-gown divide is certain to widen, with potentially irreversible consequences, continuing well beyond the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said.

Staff Reporter

Kevin Bessler reports on statewide issues in Illinois for the Center Square. He has over 30 years of experience in radio news reporting throughout the Midwest.