GPS tracking of seven million US college students who traveled for spring break this year ahead of lockdowns suggests they may have brought coronavirus home with them, and spread it in their communities.
It supports public health experts suspicions that spring break helped to fuel the virus’s spread in March, when the pandemic was beginning to take hold in the US.
Numerous outbreaks were reported on college campuses in the weeks following spring break. A now-infamous University of Texas, Austin, trip to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico led to 64 COVID-19 infections, and spring breakers across the country were pictured flagrantly ignoring social distancing guidelines.
The new research, from Ball State University and Vanderbilt University, reveals how closely rises in coronavirus cases and deaths in the US tracked the movements of spring breakers.
Students at universities that had earlier spring breaks – who were more likely to return to their campuses, before they were shut down – traveled to New York City or to popular areas of Florida, like Miami, and traveled by air contributed more to the spread of coronavirus than others, the study found.
Overall, early spring breakers led to a nearly four percentage point increase in cases in their counties, and an up to two percent increase in deaths in the areas where their universities were located.
Their vacations fueled the spread of coronavirus not only on their campuses, but in the larger counties where they went to school, the researchers concluded.
Counties from which the greatest number of students went on spring break before March nine (purple) saw the greatest increases in coronavirus cases in the weeks following the college students’ return, a new study found
For their study, published in the journal Social Science Research Network, the scientists de-identified data from the cell phones of more than seven million students.
They tracked where the 7.5 million students from 1,316 US universities traveled, when and how they got there.
Counties from which the students traveled were divided into two categories: early spring break and late spring break.
For the study’s purposes, early spring break was any that ended before March 9. Late spring breaks ended after that date.
Timing was of the essence, the researchers found.
Between February 15h and March 30, students with early spring breaks were 20 to 40 percent more likely to travel away from campuses.
Long before studies confirmed the effect of spring break on the spread of coronavirus, spring breakers pictured ignoring social distancing were widely criticized in the US (file)
Students who traveled from their universities to popular Florida destinations, like South Beach (pictured, file) and New York City, contributed more than others to the increases in cases in the counties of their universities
But if their spring breaks ended between March 12 and March 20, the students cell phone data showed they were unlikely to return to campus and fuel COVID-19 spread because the schools had closed down.
‘Consequently, counties with universities that have early breaks faced large inflows of potentially infected university students returning from spring break prior to the suspension of in-person classes while areas with universities with later spring breaks did not face this influx of potentially infected college students,’ the study authors wrote.
Within two weeks of students’ returns from early spring breaks, the counties where their universities were located began to see further increases in coronavirus cases.
‘In the first and second week after early break students returned to campus, the local county experienced exponential growth rates 2.1 and 3.7 percentage points larger than the late break counties, respectively,’ the researchers wrote.
Increases in cases of coronavirus tracked the timing of early (purple) or late (blue) spring breaks
Mortality rose with the timing of spring breaks, too, increasing more notably after the return of early spring breakers (purple)
In other words, coronavirus’s spread accelerated with the students’ return.
It took longer for the effects of spring breakers to be seen in death rates, but the researchers write that mortality rose too.
‘By the third week after March 8th, early spring break counties exhibit higher growth rates in mortality of at least 1.2 percentage points,’ they wrote.
Although the study does not actually detail all of the locations to which students traveled, the researchers revealed that travel to two regions had an outsized effect on the spread of coronavirus.
Early spring breakers were generally associate with more coronavirus spread by a factor of 0.021.
But a spread increase of 0.033 was linked to kids who went to New York City or Florida – specifically, popular beach destinations like Miami Beach.
New York City remains the epicenter of the pandemic, with more cases than any other city. Florida’s epidemic lagged behind, but is now hitting record high numbers of new infections on a daily basis.
Mode of travel mattered, too. Air travelers contributed more coronavirus spread to their communities than those who traveled by car or bus.
To the researchers surprise, students who took cruises didn’t seem to lead to any more spread than the average spring breaker.
But the most decisive factor was timing. The findings suggest that if campuses had closed down sooner or cancelled spring breaks, some coronavirus infections and even deaths might have been prevented.