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Colleges vs. parties: Trying to make the fall work

College reopening plans are crumbling across the country — even as administrators take drastic steps to make the fall work.

The big picture: The close to 2,000 campuses trying to reopen this fall are finding that it's nearly impossible to prevent outbreaks when you bring together thousands of undergraduates who've been starved of social contact all summer.


Several reopening plans have already failed.

  • The University of Alabama — which had planned for face-to-face instruction in 80% of classes and was allowing indoor gatherings of up to 50 people — has had the worst case volume, with positive tests approaching 600 in just one week.
  • UNC Chapel Hill sent students home after just two weeks after discovering outbreaks linked to parties at dorms and frats.
  • Notre Dame moved students to remote learning after its own outbreaks.

Other colleges are attempting to control partying by taking steep disciplinary measures against the students that do gather.

  • Northeastern sent warnings to 115 freshmen who said in an Instagram poll that they plan to party. The university went as far as to threaten to rescind admissions.
  • Purdue and Syracuse have both suspended students who have been caught partying, and UConn has evicted them.

But universities that are reopening without substantive testing and tracing strategies can't just point fingers at the students, experts say.

  • "It’s irresponsible and the outcome is predictable, and blaming the students is just misplaced," says Joshua Salomon, a professor of medicine at Stanford. "A lot of these school reopening plans that bring students back without testing are like turning on a faucet and sternly telling the water not to flow."
  • Colleges could be making things worse by trying to pin the blame on the students. "If there's too much scolding and too much animosity, it becomes an us versus them, the students versus the university," Sherry Pagoto, a psychologist at the University of Connecticut, tells Axios.
  • "The much better approach is to say, 'We’re all on the same side here. We all want this to work.'"

Some plans do seem to be working.

  • Public health experts say the best way to prevent infections on campuses from turning into outbreaks is to test every student every few days, Salomon tells Axios.
  • The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is doing just that, and conducted 17,000 tests on the first day of classes alone. "Everybody's watching U of I right now," says Salomon.

The bottom line: "I think it would be great for students to hear some empathy," Pagoto says. "Like, 'this is hard. This is your freshman year or your senior year, and that sucks.'"

  • "Before we go and dunk on them, we have to think about what that's like."

Supreme Court backs religious groups on New York coronavirus restrictions

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled late Wednesday that restrictions imposed on New York places of worship by Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) during the coronavirus pandemic violated the First Amendment, per Bloomberg.

Why it matters: The decision in a 5-4 vote heralds one of the first significant actions by the new President Trump-appointed conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who cast the deciding vote in favor of the Catholic Church and Orthodox Jewish synagogues.

Editor's note: This a breaking news story. Please check back for updates.

Trump agency head who often skips mask tests positive for coronavirus

The acting administrator of the United States Agency for International Development informed senior staff Wednesday he has tested positive for coronavirus, two sources familiar with the call tell Axios.

Why it matters: John Barsa, who staffers say rarely wears a mask in their office, is the latest in a series of top administration officials to contract the virus. His positive diagnosis comes amid broader turmoil at the agency following the election.

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COVID-19 shows a bright future for vaccines

Promising results from COVID-19 vaccine trials offer hope not just that the pandemic could be ended sooner than expected, but that medicine itself may have a powerful new weapon.

Why it matters: Vaccines are, in the words of one expert, "the single most life-saving innovation ever," but progress had slowed in recent years. New gene-based technology that sped the arrival of the COVID vaccine will boost the overall field, and could even extend to mass killers like cancer.

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Beware a Thanksgiving mirage

Don't be surprised if COVID metrics plunge over the next few days, only to spike next week.

Why it matters: The COVID Tracking Project warns of a "double-weekend pattern" on Thanksgiving — where the usual weekend backlog of data is tacked on to a holiday.

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Trump pardons Michael Flynn

President Trump on Wednesday pardoned his former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty in December 2017 to lying to the FBI about his Russian contacts.

Why it matters: It is the first of multiple pardons expected in the coming weeks, as Axios scooped last night.

This is a breaking story and will be updated with more details.

The emerging cybersecurity headaches awaiting Biden

The incoming administration will face a slew of cybersecurity-related challenges, as Joe Biden takes office under a very different environment than existed when he was last in the White House as vice president.

The big picture: President-elect Biden's top cybersecurity and national security advisers will have to wrestle with the ascendancy of new adversaries and cyberpowers, as well as figure out whether to continue the more aggressive stance the Trump administration has taken in cyberspace.

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Past friction between Biden and Erdoğan foreshadows future tensions

Ankara — The incoming Biden administration's foreign policy priorities and worldview will collide with those of the Turkish government on several issues.

Why it matters: The U.S. needs its NATO ally Turkey for its efforts to contain Russia, counter Iran and deal with other crises in the Middle East. But relations between Biden and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan are expected to be strained.

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Tesla's wild rise and European plan

Data: FactSet; Chart: Axios Visuals

Tesla's market capitalization blew past $500 billion for the first time Tuesday.

Why it matters: It's just a number, but kind of a wild one. Consider, via CNN: "Tesla is now worth more than the combined market value of most of the world's major automakers: Toyota, Volkswagen, GM, Ford, Fiat Chrysler and its merger partner PSA Group."

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