The University Network

How College Students Can Keep Themselves & Others Coronavirus-Free

Americans have made many efforts to slow down the nationwide spread of COVID-19, the new coronavirus sweeping across the world. Grade schools have temporarily closed their doors. Companies are increasingly asking their employees to work from home. And in highly infected areas, even storefronts have decided to shut down for the time being. 

Colleges and universities, however, have been slower to respond in such a way. Although a handful of institutions, including the University of Washington and Stanford University, have finally opted to close down their campuses and move operations completely online, the vast majority of colleges and universities are still holding class as usual. 

Yet, similar to cruise ships, college campuses can be hotbeds for disease transmission, as classroom settings, dormitories and dining halls bring students in close proximity to others for hours at a time. 

So to help students keep COVID-19 away, The University Network (TUN) gathered advice from two public health professionals working in higher education. 

Brian Labus is an assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. And Nellie Brown is the director of workplace health and safety programs for the Worker Institute at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

How can you avoid COVID-19 on campus? 

Diseases like COVID-19 spread when someone infected with the virus coughs or sneezes droplets into the air. If these infected droplets make their way to your nose or mouth, you become at risk of contracting the virus. 

The droplets only travel up to about six feet in the air, both experts have explained, but they can fall down onto commonly-touched surfaces like desks, chairs, whiteboards, door knobs and the keyboards of open laptops. If you touch those surfaces and then touch your face, as most people do 23 times an hour, you become at risk of infection. 

That’s why the most important thing for you to do is regularly wash your hands with soap and water, Labus explains. And if that’s not an option, use hand sanitizer. 

But, be careful washing your hands in a public restroom like in the library or dormitory, Brown warns, as many public sinks still have manual faucets that require you to touch the faucet handle both before and after washing your hands. 

To keep the germs off, Brown suggests using your elbow or a paper towel to turn off the faucet. And if you’re in a paper-free bathroom and are unable to use your elbow, she advises thoroughly washing down the faucet handle with soap and water. 

In addition, both experts recommend practicing social distancing. 

In the classroom, that means staying as far away as possible from your peers, Labus explains. 

And socially, it’s best to avoid skin-to-skin contact. That means no hand-shaking or even fist-bumping. “We may need to go back to nodding heads and bowing,” Brown says with a laugh. 

But in all seriousness, “we are used to hugging and shaking hands,” Brown explains. “It does seem very cold to not do that, but this is the way fluids spread.”

Really, this is something you should be doing all the time, Brown adds. “Just because we are talking about coronavirus doesn’t mean the other diseases go away. If we got data on the flu all the time the way we got data on coronavirus, I think people would be appalled at the numbers.”

Amidst the coronavirus outbreak, many people throughout the world have rushed to purchase respiratory masks as a method to keep the germs away. The influx in demand for such masks have caused their prices to soar, sometimes into the hundreds. 

However, Brown and others are hesitant to support the widespread usage of these masks. She points out that people who aren’t used to wearing masks tend to continuously reach to readjust them, causing them to touch their face repeatedly with a false sense of security. 

If you feel sick, go ahead and skip that class

For any dedicated student, skipping class is no easy decision. In the most serious scenarios, It could mean the difference between passing and failing. 

Yet, if you’re sick, it’s almost always best to self-quarantine. That’s the case now — amidst the COVID-19 outbreak — and always. 

“I would say if you had the flu, do the same thing,” Brown says. “We are much better off if we can try to keep people who are truly coughing and sneezing to stay away from others.” 

Because most college students are young, they are typically associated with having good immune systems, which enable them to shed off disease and recover quickly. However, this stereotype doesn’t apply to every student. And assuming it to be true puts the most susceptible students at risk. 

You may not realize it, but many people are immune-suppressed, Brown explains. “And they could be people your own age too. You don’t know if someone has a history of juvenile arthritis and they’ve been on immune-supressent medications, or they’ve had treatment for cancer. You may not be aware of that. Life is like this and people may not be obviously ill.”

Sometimes, though, skipping is easier said than done. 

“While you might be able to make up a missed lecture or quiz, it probably won’t be so easy to miss an organic chemistry lab,” Labus points out. 

In that regard, Labus recommends reading the course syllabus and reviewing any information your college or university has sent out about what to do if you’re sick amidst the COVID-19 outbreak. 

Most every higher education institution has released some type of guidance, and each class attendance policy looks roughly the same. 

Guidance from Cornell reads: “If you feel ill, you should use the same judgment you would normally use about attending class, staying home or seeking medical care. You should always notify your professors if you are unable to attend class for any reason.” 

More often than not, professors tend to be forgiving and understanding about these sorts of things, particularly in times of widespread concern. As long as you’re being truthful and acting with good intentions, chances are a few sick days won’t tank your GPA. 

If you’re sick, it’s best to keep to yourself

Self-quarantining can be a miserable process. There’s no doubt that a lack of human interaction and fresh air can start to weigh on you. But if you feel sick, it’s best not to leave your dorm room, apartment or house, unless you’re going somewhere to seek medical care. 

“It’s all about reducing the chance that you spread your disease to others. If you are sick, stay home,” Labus advises. “If you do have to be around people, keep a little distance from them and try not to have close contact with them. You might want to give your grandparents a hug if you haven’t seen them in a while, but you don’t want to infect them while you do.”

Because there is no widespread vaccine or antiviral treatment for COVID-19 yet, susceptible groups aren’t being cared for fast enough, Brown adds. So, at this point, it’s best to avoid grandparents and other potentially susceptible groups altogether. 

What about dining halls? Are they safe? 

According to Labus, the dining halls are roughly as safe as the library, classroom or any other place that people are in close contact with each other. 

“COVID-19 is not spread through food, so there is no more risk to eating at the dining hall than there would be eating anywhere else or studying near other students at the library,” he explains. “Students should be doing this anyway, but washing their hands before eating is the best way to protect yourself from any number of diseases.”

That said, students who feel sick should try to refrain from eating at the dining hall, just like they should stay away from class or any other public space. 

For those who are ill, many colleges and universities have “sick-tray” programs that allow students’ friends or family members to pick up and deliver their meals directly from the dining hall. 

Should you stockpile food just in case? 

When faced with any widespread crisis, there are those who turn to “doomsday prepping,” buying all of the food and water in their sight in case supplies start to run out. But amidst the COVID-19 outbreak, that’s not necessary. 

“There is no reason to expect COVID-19 to cause the same damage to our infrastructure that we Americans would see after an earthquake, hurricane or tornado, so you shouldn’t plan for it in the same way,” Labus wrote in an article published in The Conversation. “While you don’t want to run out of toilet paper, there is no reason to buy 50 packages.”

“As a general preparedness step, you should have a three-day supply of food and water in case of emergencies,” he added. 

For some, however, affording three days of food and water at one time isn’t always possible. And although many colleges and universities have on-campus markets where students can exchange their meal swipes for groceries, that’s not always the case. In that regard, some institutions, including Trinity College in Texas, have started to closely monitor their supplies, making sure there is enough food and cleaning products in case of emergency. 

And an increasing number of colleges and universities offer food pantries where hungry students can pick up nutritious food free of charge. 

When should you opt to get tested?

If you feel sick with a fever, cough or difficulty breathing, there is a chance, albeit small, that you have COVID-19, according to the World Health Organization (WHO)

At this point, however, there is a significant shortage of COVID-19 tests available in the United States. For that reason, it is very unlikely that your college or university’s health center will have the ability to test you. 

But, if you’ve recently traveled to an at risk nation or have been around someone diagnosed with COVID-19, you’ll likely be eligible for one of the few tests available. Contact your healthcare professional, and that person will work with your state’s public health department to determine if you need to be tested.