by James A. Bacon
Like many other University of Virginia alumni, I was taken aback to hear that the Board of Visitors had granted President Jim Ryan a $200,000 bonus for the great job UVa had done in addressing the COVID-19 epidemic.
Rector Whittington Clement put it this way: “When the situation this year became clearer and we had a highly successful handling of COVID-19, we think the University did as well as, if not better, than any institution of higher learning in making the adjustments necessary to COVID-19, we thought that it was appropriate to give him a bonus.”
I don’t want to prejudge whether Team Ryan has done a great job of addressing COVID-19 or not. To be sure, UVa has resumed in-person learning, but it also has instituted a draconian lockdown, including mandated vaccination for students, the unenrollment of those who did not comply, mask wearing required both indoors and outdoors, and mandated isolation and quarantine for those who test positive and/or been exposed. UVa is a laboratory testbed for the individual-liberties-be-damned approach to public health that some would like to see for the entire country.
Personally, I’m a pragmatist. I see COVID policy as a trade-off between individual liberties and the public good. I am not dogmatic that one should prevail over the other. But if you’re going to sacrifice one for the other, you damn well need to pay attention to the results.
The University of Virginia publishes a creditable COVID Tracker dashboard that allows us to follow the effectiveness of the Ryan administration’s COVID policies. We can see how the university community is affected by an approach that prioritizes the public good.
A few days after the start of the fall semester, the numbers look favorable — although not unambiguously so. Yesterday, the University reported 25 new COVID cases — 20 of them among students, who are about 99% vaccinated. The seven-day average of the testing positivity rate has climbed to nearly 5%. Still, the seven-day moving average of new cases is running at half the level of the same point last year.
The UVa COVID tracker also includes a hospitalization metric for UVA Health, which looks like this:
This graph shows hospitalizations running at 2/3 the level of the epidemic’s peak. The numbers almost certainly include non-university patients from the hospital’s larger service area, however, so I’m not sure how relevant it is as a basis for comparison.
So, here’s the question for debate: Let’s say the current array of policies result in half the number of COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations. (There are too few deaths to measure). Is that worth the cost to personal liberties? Follow-up question: Has UVa really achieved a personal liberties/public good tradeoff that is superior to that of other universities?