Coronavirus Chronicles — COVID-19 Worse Than Freshman 15

For years, a popular urban legend has been the fabled “Freshman 15,” the number of pounds rumored to be gained by the average new college student coping with the stress of change, and the consumption of massive quantities of beer.

The National Institutes of Health website even includes a scientific report on this subject. The method was an online survey of a small number of unmarried freshmen who lived in dorms at a private university in America (the Northeast, specifically.) It found that about half the respondents gained weight — the men more so than the women — and that the average gain was nowhere near 15 pounds, but a bit less than three pounds. However, this was 5.5 times as much as weight gain experienced during the same time frame by the general population of individuals who were not college freshmen.

Obviously, this was not a stop-the-presses news item. But today, many students long for the good old days when gaining 15 pounds, or even 2.7 pounds, was the worst fate they potentially faced.

The bad new days

This year, the introduction of college freshmen to the realm of higher education is more fraught with tension and danger than ever before. Colleges are, quite frankly, a mess. First, a glance at various social media helps to piece together a tale of students virtually imprisoned in their dorms or sorority houses by school authorities who are, according to students, ridiculously and unwarrantedly afraid of the virus.

A mother unleashes an angry tirade against the university that forces young people into quarantine even if they have no coronavirus symptoms, or if they have already had the virus and recovered. That objection shows a certain amount of ignorance, since it is widely known that asymptomatic people carry the virus, and can even be “superspreaders.”

The part about having recovered is even more dicey, since nobody seems quite sure that there is such a thing as immunity, let alone how it functions. Worse yet, the suspicion exists that SARS-CoV-2 can “hide out” in a human body, presenting a clean test score while waiting to perform a trick known as “recrudescence.” Apparently, no scientists anywhere really have a handle on that question yet.

In a worst-case example of uninformed hubris, one anonymous online commenting parent insisted that the kids are rightfully outraged about being overprotected from a disease “THEY KNOW is not a major risk to them.” Even if the risk were minimal to college-age youth, their indifference to spreading the virus around among teaching staff, other campus employees, and townies is breathtakingly selfish.

Plenty of disregard to go around

Not to single out the State University of New York system, because others are equally troubled, but here are some brief highlights from a recent New York Times report by Amanda Rosa, whose title alone tells the story: “A Few Students Threw Parties. Now an Entire SUNY Campus Is Shut Down.”

She relates how, less than a week into the school year, SUNY Oneonta suspended five party-hosting students. People started testing positive. In an effort to protect the uninfected students and local residents, the state sent in eight case investigators and 71 contact tracers, to no avail. Rosa says,

But it was already too late.

Five days later, the outbreak was out of control, with more than 500 virus cases among a campus student population that is usually around 6,000.

As a result, officials announced on Thursday that they were canceling in-person classes for the fall semester and sending students home…

Since Childhood Obesity News is mainly concerned with children, we will not go into the massive amounts of college-opening news from all over the country, but one early August article concerning Indiana’s Purdue University was quite predictive.

In June, the University Senate had polled professors, staff, and graduate students, 7,234 of them to be precise, and half of those people said they would not feel safe returning to campus in the fall. Almost none of the respondents believed that, outside of classes, their fellow students would do anything that even approximated “social distancing.” The administration drew up the Protect Purdue Pledge, but a Student Government poll revealed that nine out 10 students thought no one, outside school hours and off school property, would follow any rules.

And these are our best and brightest, the leaders of tomorrow. If expectations are so abysmally low among supposedly rational, supposedly intelligent people who are almost grownups, what can be expected from elementary, middle and high-school kids?

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “The Freshman 15: Is it Real?,”, 09/09/08
Source: “A Few Students Threw Parties. Now an Entire SUNY Campus Is Shut Down,”, 09/09/20
Source: “Purdue students: Likely to return when campus reopens, not confident in classmates to wear masks, social distance,”, 07/05/20
Image by University of the Fraser Valley/CC BY 2.0

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OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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