Since the World Health Organization (WHO) classified coronavirus as a pandemic on March 11, officials at all levels of the American government are taking steps to respond. But government officials aren't the only ones who need to come up with a plan; colleges and universities across the country also need to figure out how to keep their students and staff safe. If you're a college student, you're probably wondering how to keep yourself healthy as coronavirus continues to spread. Here's how to prepare for coronavirus if you live in a dorm and your school is staying open, according to public health experts.
As of March 13, The New York Times reported that more than 1,600 people in 46 states and Washington, D.C., have tested positive for coronavirus. The rapid spread of coronavirus has put colleges in particular on full alert, Axios reported back in February, in large part because college campuses can be breeding grounds for infectious diseases. According to Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, college campuses can facilitate the spread of viral illnesses because of the close proximity students have to one another. "Any close-quarter[s] living can increase the chances of spread of any viral infection, including this one," Adalja tells Elite Daily.
College dorms in particular pose certain risks when it comes to infectious diseases like coronavirus, says Dr. Rachael Piltch-Loeb, a Preparedness Fellow at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. With multiple residents sharing small spaces, the likelihood of coronavirus spreading can significantly increase once there is a confirmed coronavirus case on a college campus.
"College life is social life, so people are interacting with each other in a confined space," Piltch-Loeb says. "Dorms are not the most hygienic places. You have shared bathrooms, you have shared sinks and washrooms and all that stuff, so simply put germs circulate in college environments, based on the proximity of people and the proximity of their respiratory droplets, which is the primary vehicle [by which] coronavirus is spread."
However, this shouldn't necessarily be a cause for panic. Young, college-age students who are not immunocompromised or do not have any chronic health conditions have a lower risk of getting seriously sick from coronavirus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But college students, like everyone else, should still take some important steps to keep themselves and others around them — especially older adults and people who are immunocompromised — safe and healthy. If you live in a dorm and are worried about coronavirus, there are some precautions you can take, Piltch-Loeb says — and these precautions apply to the flu and other infections, too.
You can regularly wipe down and disinfect commonly touched surfaces and avoid touching your face, Piltch-Loeb recommends. You can also stay hydrated, take Vitamin C, and avoid any actions that may compromise your respiratory function, like smoking or vaping. As Piltch-Loeb points out, the risk to healthy young adults is relatively low when it comes to coronavirus, but if you come into contact with older people or people who have chronic health conditions, you can put them at risk if you are not careful or fail to practice basic hygiene. If you're on a college campus, and especially in a dorm, it's important to sanitize your space as much as possible to limit the spread of illness.
"If you’re in a dorm room, you want to be really cognizant of all of the areas you may be sharing with somebody else," Piltch-Loeb says, "and making sure you’re keeping those as clean as possible knowing that you’re not the only one who’s commonly touching them."
The CDC has recommended a variety of social distancing measures to limit the spread of coronavirus, including event cancellations and restrictions on large group gatherings. However, according to Renata Schiavo, PhD, MA, CCL, a Senior Lecturer at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health's Department of Sociomedical Sciences, social distancing isn't always possible in university and college dorm environments. Schiavo, who is also the founder and president of the Health Equity Initiative's Board of Directors, tells Elite Daily while students should follow guidance from their schools and the CDC, school administrations also need to take extra steps to accommodate students from low-income or otherwise marginalized backgrounds.
"There are many students who live in poverty or have high levels of stress because they have to work multiple jobs in order to stay in school and/or because they are unfairly marginalized by society," Schiavo says. "This kind of disease outbreak can exacerbate existing health and social inequities for these students, and others in their communities."
As Schiavo points out, many students can't simply afford to leave campus even if their schools do switch to an online class model. For students who are still on college campuses — and for everybody else — the CDC currently recommends that everyone practice basic hygiene, including washing your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. (Pro tip: Sing some Lizzo in your head to time yourself.) The CDC also advises everyone to stay home when sick to avoid infecting others, to avoid large gatherings, and to develop an emergency plan for if you or someone close to you does become infected.
If you think you’re showing symptoms of coronavirus, which include fever, shortness of breath, and cough, call your doctor before going to get tested. If you’re anxious about the virus’s spread in your community, visit the CDC for up-to-date information and resources, or seek out mental health support. You can find all Elite Daily's coverage of coronavirus here.
Dr. Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security
Dr. Rachael Piltch-Loeb, preparedness fellow at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
Renata Schiavo, PhD, MA, CCL, senior lecturer at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health's Department of Sociomedical Sciences, founder and president of the Health Equity Initiative's Board of Directors