Ohio University students already were busily moving out of Athens this past weekend according to various social media reports, which suggests they’ll be even more busily moving out (and in) this week and weekend.

Most, according to observers, were conspicuous for their lack of precautions against COVID-19, such as wearing a mask or maintaining physical distance from one another. For anyone who has visited our local big-box stores recently, this makes them not too different from many of our permanent residents.

One important difference, however, is that OU students who are moving in, or who have family or friends coming to town to help them move in or out, may present a risk not posed by the great majority of permanent Athens residents. They could import this potentially deadly virus from areas where it’s much more prevalent, anyplace with high-density population. 

This creates the potential for triggering a spike in local cases of the coronavirus, where one day a certain area may have few confirmed cases and a few days later, as a result of the virus’ introduction from outside, see a surge in positive tests. A spike took place in neighboring Hocking County over the weekend, where 16 confirmed COVID-19 cases were reported Monday, more than tripling from the five confirmed cases as of Friday. (These new cases apparently have not been linked to visitors from outside the area or any other particular cause, and Hocking Count’s popular state parks and cabin rentals have been closed through April.)

As of Wednesday afternoon, Athens County still had just three positive confirmed cases of COVID-19, a number that has held steady for more than a month. The main reason for our low number of positive cases, experts have said, is likely the low-density population in southeast Ohio, though it may also reflect a lack of testing, especially for people who don’t show symptoms or who simply can’t or won’t access a physician for a referral.

Even considering those possibilities, one would expect to start seeing more confirmed cases in Athens County if the coronavirus were more active here than the very low numbers suggest.

We can all agree that keeping it that way should be a top priority, which is why it’s important – as Athens Mayor Steve Patterson suggested in an Athens NEWS article on April 16 – that 1) local residents avoid going to stores or otherwise gathering during times when lots of moving out/moving in students and their family or friends are likely to be present; 2) that moving out/in students stagger their moving dates so they’re not all doing it at the same time; 3) that these same folks take the aforementioned precautions (social distance, hand-washing and masks) when moving around our community; and 4) that they don’t bring any more people than absolutely necessary to move in or out. 

The latter three suggestions are all the more important if the move-out/move-in requires folks to come to Athens from population centers such as Columbus, northeast Ohio, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh or wherever.

We’re not without current or historical precedent when it comes to justifiable fears about visitors from the big city bringing a virulent and potentially deadly contagion to outlying areas.

People in resort communities across the country have voiced this concern loudly, including in places such as the Hamptons of Long Island and Cape Cod that are popular vacation destinations for the nearby big cities of New York City and Boston and much of the central and northern Eastern Seaboard.

The historical corollary is mainly the Spanish flu of 1918, but if you go back to the medieval and early Renaissance periods, you can see it with the bubonic (black) plague that killed an estimated 25 million people in Europe.

Not coincidentally, I’ve been reading the timely novel, “A Year of Wonders,” by award-winning novelist and foreign correspondent Geraldine Brooks. She writes about the “plague village” of Eyam, Derbyshire, England, which in 1665-67 lost as many as three-quarters of its small population to the bubonic plague. The plague was thought to have been brought in by a tailor who had been in plague-ravaged London, who was carrying cloth samples infected with the contagion. Greatly influenced by the community’s Anglican vicar, Eyam’s citizens agreed to self-quarantine to avoid spreading the disease to neighboring communities.

BBC article last week headlined “Coronavirus: What Can the ‘Plague Village’ of Eyam teach us?” was illustrated by an image from a 1625 pamphlet showing a large threatening skeleton emerging from plague-emptied London in the background, striding on caskets, with the words, “Lord have mercy on London. We follow, we fly, we die.” On one side of the foreground three rustics have been struck down by the plague; on the other side armed villagers are menacing an approaching crowd of fleeing Londoners with drawn spears and other sharp weapons, with the words “keep out” underneath.

The message is obvious. People who live in these areas where potentially infected Londoners were fleeing felt very strongly about keeping them out. I’m not saying we should attack move-out/move-in students and their families with spears and other sharp objects, but it would be great if they took care to not spread any potential contagion while they’re here moving about our community.

 Yes, I know COVID-19 is not the black plague but it can kill you or make you very sick, it is highly contagious, and the experience elsewhere shows what it can do to over-burdened health-care infrastructure and high-risk and older people.

We’ve done a good job of avoiding any sort of coronavirus surge in Athens County (knock on wood). Let’s not screw it up during OU move-out/move-in time. A surge in positives cases will just delay the point at which we can start enjoying our public life again, not to mention get back to educating our young people.

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