Cool Classes: Epidemics in America

Author: Casey Novak

I’ll never forget riding down the middle of Eddy Street in a golf cart, holding on to my luggage and a sack lunch. The people on the sidewalk knew exactly where I was headed — to quarantine. I had been identified as a close contact with someone who had tested positive for COVID-19.

I spent seven days in quarantine and had three negative COVID-19 tests during that week. The best part about the experience was that I was able to quarantine with another person who had also been exposed. We settled into a routine of Zoom classes, apartment workouts and making meals. By the end of the week we were tired of our small apartment and anxious to get back to campus.

“I got released from quarantine today! I took my final rapid test this afternoon, exactly 7 days to the hour of when I went in,” I wrote in the pandemic journal I kept as an assignment for the course, Epidemics in America. “Waiting for the third negative test to come back was so stressful; I had convinced myself that I was going to test positive. Longest 30 minutes of my life.”

Protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19 were in place across campus this semester. Photography by Matt Cashore ’94

Many students had the experience of being quarantined this semester. Students also wore masks at all times and maintained social distance in classes and campus common spaces, which were unprecedented practices for us.

We’ve heard the word unprecedented a lot during the coronavirus pandemic, but in American studies professor Laurel Daen’s class, I learned about numerous precedents from past disease outbreaks. Ranging from smallpox in the 1500s to HIV/AIDS in the 1980s, we discussed common themes of epidemics, such as the challenges of implementing public health measures, the stigma of disease, the impact of leadership and pandemic fatigue.

We weren’t even the first Notre Dame students to be on campus during a pandemic. In the fall of 1918, Spanish influenza was in full force. Mask wearing, social distancing and limits on gatherings were all mandated public health measures at the time. Notre Dame canceled three football games in coach Knute Rockne’s first season and shut down classes for over a week as the case numbers surged in the area.

Similar events occurred on campus this semester, with the postponement of the Wake Forest football game and two weeks of online-only classes after an early increase in COVID-19 cases. New safety rules were introduced, and the HERE campaign intensified. As the Epidemics in America curriculum continually reminded my classmates and me, things like this had happened before.

Stigma around disease, we learned, is a common feature in an epidemic. Due to the behavioral stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS, for example, research for a cure was not prioritized by the government, leading to an increased incidence of disease in society.

Students at Notre Dame felt stigmatized about COVID-19, especially during the first major campus outbreak. Many who tested positive felt ashamed to admit it because of the tracing of cases to off-campus parties. This had a detrimental impact on containment because people were reluctant to be honest about their activities.


Mixed messages among community leadership also has been a significant factor in pandemics for centuries. During the 1721 Boston smallpox epidemic, for example, inoculation was introduced in the colonies, but a debate among elite proponents and detractors of the practice caused widespread confusion and polarization.

A similar phenomenon surfaced on campus this semester when University President Rev. John I. Jenkins, CSC, ’76, ’78M.A., contracted COVID-19. He had failed to observe campus safety protocols during the White House Rose Garden ceremony honoring Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett ’97J.D. Campus response was mixed to his decision to attend the event unmasked, with many student discussions questioning the ethics of enforcing the HERE campaign rules if University leadership failed to uphold them.

One theme connecting outbreaks past and present that we could all relate to was pandemic fatigue. Vigilance against disease and the fear of contracting an illness puts a strain on people over time, leading to lapses in following public health measures. In New Orleans yellow fever epidemics during the 19th century, for example, conflicting information left people “exhausted” from weighing how to protect themselves, according to historian Kathryn Olivarius.

There were also those who argued against imposing preventive measures, instead letting the disease spread so that survivors would be “acclimated.” Those who did recover from yellow fever benefited from their “immunoprivilege,” Olivarius notes, further stratifying society at a time when the disease already disproportionately affected the most vulnerable.

On Notre Dame’s campus, the football team’s win over Clemson — a moment I’ll remember forever — was a prime example of pandemic fatigue on a mass scale. Students, both excited for the victory and exhausted from the semester’s restrictions, ignored social distancing protocols and spilled onto the field in celebration of the victory and a release of pent-up energy.


Reading my pandemic journal, I can sense the moments when my own fatigue peaked, like the cancellation of study abroad. I was planning on spending the spring semester in Santiago, Chile, studying at a local university and living with a host family. While the cancellation was not unexpected, it still hurt when it became official.

“Living abroad is something that I have imagined doing since I was young; exploring another country, learning a new language, immersing myself completely in a new culture,” I wrote. “Study abroad was one of the reasons that I picked Notre Dame; it feels heartbreaking to have this experience taken away by COVID-19.”

The precedents we studied in Epidemics in America provided comforting lessons about how humanity has endured similar situations and recovered. This course introduced a lot of big questions that we have yet to answer about the COVID-19 pandemic: How will a vaccine change the course of the pandemic in the next year? Are we living through a moment of social and political revolution?

What I do know is that we are experiencing a historical moment that will eventually be studied in classes like Epidemics in America, and that the lessons I learned this semester have helped me better understand the pandemic that we are living through now.

Casey Novak is a junior science-business major from Dundee, Oregon with a minor in science, technology and values.