Despite pandemic, some college students want to be on or near campus. Here are ways for them to reduce their risks.

By Ranit Mishori,

If you’re a college student right now, you’re right — you got robbed.

Covid-19 has stolen the school experience you wanted all your life. At least for this fall, and probably for next winter, too. Nope, it’s not fair. But consider this: Odds are high you’ve still got your health. Yet covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, can steal that away from you, too — and you need to take that risk seriously.

This is especially true for students who are coming up with workarounds to the physical distancing that most local universities have put in place. While many schools have switched to remote learning, and urged students to stay home, some students appear to be trying to salvage some aspects of a “normal times” college experience. They’re choosing to be in their college this fall, to share houses near campus, to form informal study groups, and (let’s be honest) to hold a party here or there.

The choice tempts fate, but given that some are willing to do that, here are some ways to reduce the risks.

1. What if I need to quarantine?

When you travel from your home state to a different state for college, you probably will have to quarantine because both the college and state will require it. You may also need to quarantine if you come in contact with somebody who has been identified as being infected with the coronavirus. That means staying put in your residence or dorm and going out for only absolutely necessary things, such as a doctor’s visit or to throw out the trash. So think ahead: Have you figured out where to buy, order or deliver food and groceries? Do you know which pharmacies deliver medications? Exercising outdoors may be an issue — do you have access to virtual workouts? Do you have a good Internet connection for schoolwork and for virtually connecting with friends and family?

2. Where can I get tested?

Some schools require all students — even those who are not approved to be on campus — to get tested when they first arrive and periodically thereafter. Check with your school about its internal arrangements for student testing, through student health services or other vendors. Some cities also have a variety of city-sponsored testing locations, many of them free.

3. What happens if I test positive?

If you test positive in Washington, D.C., where I work as a family physician and professor at Georgetown University School of Medicine, you should expect a call from a contact tracer working for the city’s Department of Health. That is true in many other cities and states as well. It is important that you cooperate with the contact tracer and describe all those with whom you have come in contact before testing positive, so that efforts can be launched to quarantine them, test them if needed and stop the spread of the disease.

Most universities would like to know whether you test positive even if you don’t live on campus or come to campus for classes (and are studying only online). Find out what the reporting methods are for your school and help out by disclosing your test results.

4. When should I be in self-isolation?

If you tested positive or are sick with covid-19, you will be asked to self-isolate. This can be hard, especially if you live with housemates. Isolation is more restrictive than quarantine. You will need to stay in your room for 10 days after a positive test, eat in your room, try to avoid sharing a bathroom with others and not go out for anything, except medical care. Your roommates may have to quarantine and monitor themselves for symptoms. Talk to your housemates about this possibility ahead of time, so everyone’s expectations are aligned. Consider designating a “sick room” in your home, should somebody test positive, especially if it has its own separate bathroom.

5. What about general medical care?

Decide where you will get your routine medical care as soon as possible. Student health centers are great options at many universities. Some students prefer to have a private primary care doctor. Either way, make sure you know who to turn to should you feel sick. Set that up before coming to town, so you don’t have to scramble when you are feeling awful.

See that your vaccines are up to date and plan on getting the flu vaccine as soon as it is available. Many schools will provide flu shots to students in the fall, even for those who don’t live on campus. But if your school is not one of them, there are probably many other places nearby — such as pharmacies and supermarkets — to get immunized for the flu. You should plan to do that by mid-October. A combined upsurge in flu and covid-19 this winter would swamp health facilities, doctors’ offices and hospitals and be very tough on those needing to seek help.

6. What medical supplies do I need at home?

It would be a good idea to have a working thermometer so you can check yourself for a fever, one of the symptoms of covid-19. A box of vinyl food preparation or similar gloves might come in handy, although washing your hands often is key; make sure you have enough soap, and plenty of sanitizing gels, wipes or sprays so you can regularly clean and disinfect commonly used surfaces in your home. Make sure you have more than one cloth mask as those need to be washed often, may rip and tear, or disappear.

7. What kind of social life can I have?

The answer here, unfortunately, is a very limited one. It is a good idea to create “pods,” or small groups of friends with whom you mostly hang out. This will allow you to avoid exposure to the virus that can occur when mingling with a large number of people, who may be carrying the virus even if they don’t have symptoms. Bars are considered hotspots so avoid them. If you want to eat out, find restaurants that allow outdoor seating and where the tables are well separated. Don’t share food or any eating or drinking utensils, even at home.

What else can you do? Go for walks with friends; have a picnic outdoors; try a drive-in movie.

Please avoid large gatherings (generally no more than 10 people indoors or 25 outdoors, depending on your city’s and university’s policies), and please, please skip the parties.

8. Can I exercise?

Exercising is critical to our health and well-being. University gyms and sports centers in many places may be closed, but some fitness centers will be open. The safest option is to find alternatives, such as working out at home or outdoors.

If you decide to go to a fitness center, be vigilant about following good public health practices: wear a mask at all times, wash your hands frequently, keep a distance of at least six feet from others and don’t share any personal items. Bring your own sanitizing wipes and use them on any surfaces you intend to use that are frequently touched by others, such as doorknobs, free weights, exercise equipment and cardio machines. Avoid the locker room. Save the shower for home. Bring your own water bottle.

And lastly, be a good citizen: If you have symptoms, any symptoms, stay home.

9. How can I be a good neighbor?

Many universities are near or in residential areas, and community members are rightfully concerned about the influx of young people from other states into their neighborhood and the threat of covid-19 outbreaks. Please be considerate: wear your mask outdoors, keep physical distancing, don’t bring large groups of guests to your home. Your neighbors will be thankful and so will your university.

Staying healthy will take some effort this fall. We all have a role to play to keep ourselves and our communities covid-free.

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