How to Protect Yourself From COVID-19 at College

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Reviewed by Elizabeth M. Clarke, FNP, MSN, RN, MSSW

  • It's important for students to continue protecting themselves and others from COVID-19.
  • Viruses can spread easily in communal spaces through close contact.
  • Wash your hands, wear a mask, and get a COVID-19 vaccine if possible.
  • Let your professors know if you're sick, and seek medical attention if your symptoms worsen.

As more and more people get vaccinated against COVID-19 and campuses around the U.S. prepare to reopen for fall, students must remain vigilant about protecting themselves, as well as their peers, teachers, and university staff.

Dr. Scott Wesley Long, a clinical pathologist, microbiologist, and prolific infectious disease researcher, says unvaccinated students returning to campus or in-person classes should continue to practice social distancing by "avoiding crowds, parties, sporting events, or unnecessary social contact until the threat of COVID-19 has passed."

The latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) permits fully vaccinated individuals to "resume activities without wearing a mask or physically distancing, except where required by federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws, rules, and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance."

“If you are fully vaccinated [against COVID-19], you can resume activities that you did prior to the pandemic.”. Source: — Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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Staying informed can help students cope with the evolving news around COVID-19. So far hundreds of colleges and universities have announced plans to mandate COVID-19 inoculation for returning students.

Despite this trend, not every institution plans to require vaccination. "Ask your college and workplace if they have a plan for dealing with COVID-19," advises Long.

He also stressed that students should remain calm and be prepared. "COVID-19 appears to be relatively mild in young adults, with most severe cases occurring in the elderly," said Long. "If a student is concerned for their health, they should contact student health or their primary care provider by phone to seek guidance."

College students are also strongly encouraged to get an available COVID-19 vaccine.

5 Tips for Preventing Illness on Campus

1. Get Vaccinated Against COVID-19

All college students in the U.S. have been eligible for COVID-19 vaccination since April 19. If you haven't gotten a vaccine yet — regardless of whether your institution requires inoculation for students — make an appointment to do so as soon as possible. Many clinics and pharmacies also now accept walk-ins.

2. Wash Your Hands

Viruses can spread easily in enclosed and shared spaces. For students with communal areas, such as lecture halls, study tables, and dorm rooms, practicing good hand hygiene is one of the best ways to reduce the risk of contracting and transmitting a viral infection.

"Always make sure to wash your hands when you can, as the number of germs that we pick up throughout the day is astronomical," said Jocelyn Nadua, a registered practical nurse and care coordinator at C-Care Health Services.

Best hygiene practices include washing your hands for at least 25 seconds, scrubbing between your fingers and around your fingernails, and washing the entire palm and back of the hand. Just rinsing your hands with water isn't enough.

You should also avoid touching your eyes, face, and mouth, as viruses can transfer easily from your hands to your respiratory system. If soap and water are unavailable, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.

3. Wear a Mask

Viruses, including the coronavirus, commonly spread through airborne respiratory droplets from coughs and sneezes. In these droplets, viruses can travel 3-6 feet, infecting people nearby or landing on hard surfaces.

In public spaces, face masks or other cloth coverings serve as the best tool to prevent these respiratory droplets from infecting your fellow classmates and teachers. Make sure to wear the mask over your nose and mouth to prevent potential droplets from spreading into the air.

While those fully vaccinated against COVID-19 do not need to wear masks in most indoor or outdoor spaces per the CDC's most recent guidelines, all people must continue to wear masks on public transportation and at local businesses if required.

4. Avoid Close Contact With Others If Unvaccinated

While outside your living space, the CDC recommends that unvaccinated individuals maintain at least a 6-foot distance between themselves and others to avoid spreading the virus.

Unvaccinated college students should continue to practice social distancing and avoid crowded areas like bars, parties, and dining halls. The more closely you interact with others and the longer that interaction is, the more likely you are to be exposed to COVID-19.

If your friend, roommate, or significant other displays COVID-19-like symptoms, do your best to avoid interacting with them until they feel better. The same goes for people exhibiting symptoms in public places on campus.

5. Disinfect Touched Objects and Surfaces

In college, where many objects and surfaces are shared among students, viruses can spread quickly. Although it's less common to contract the coronavirus from an infected surface, studies show that flu viruses can survive up to 48 hours on hard surfaces.

Regularly clean and disinfect surfaces and objects that may be contaminated. This should be easy to do in your dorm room or living space; however, you should carry disinfecting wipes with you if you plan on using shared campus objects or surfaces, like computers.

What to Do If You Get Sick at College

Stay Home and Take Care of Yourself

"If you're sick, staying at home and resting is by far the most efficient way of getting healthy," said Nadua. This means resting, eating healthy, drinking plenty of fluids, and taking over-the-counter medicines, such as acetaminophen.

Separate Yourself From Others

If possible, separate yourself from roommates and friends by staying in one room in your living space and using a separate bathroom. If you have any COVID-19 symptoms or tested positive for the virus — even if you've been vaccinated — tell your close contacts they might have been exposed and to get tested immediately if they exhibit any symptoms.

Let Your Professors Know

If you know you're going to miss class for an extended period of time, "communicate with professors electronically to stay on top of assignments, as opposed to attempting to go to class or office hours," said Suzet McKinney, CEO and executive director of the Illinois Medical District. Continue to keep your professors updated about your situation through email if your illness worsens.

Monitor Your Symptoms

Common symptoms of COVID-19 include, but are not limited to, fever, cough, and loss of smell and taste. Other symptoms include diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting. If you lose your sense of smell and/or taste, get tested immediately.

Follow care instructions from your healthcare provider and health department while continuing to monitor the progression of your symptoms. If you experience trouble breathing, persistent pain, or other extreme symptoms, seek emergency medical care immediately.

Visit a Health Center

If you're experiencing worsening COVID-19 or flu-like symptoms, contact your local or campus health center and schedule an appointment. A professional medical specialist can provide valuable information and resources to help you fight your sickness.

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Reviewed by:

Portrait of Elizabeth M. Clarke, FNP, MSN, RN, MSSW

Elizabeth M. Clarke, FNP, MSN, RN, MSSW

Elizabeth Clarke (Poon) is a board-certified family nurse practitioner. A native of Boston, Clarke tired of the cold and snowy winters and moved to Coral Gables, Florida, to complete her undergraduate degree in nursing at the University of Miami. After working for several years in the UHealth and Jackson Memorial Medical systems in the cardiac and ER units, Clarke returned to the University of Miami to complete her master of science in nursing. Since earning her MSN, Clarke has worked providing primary and urgent care to pediatric populations.

Editor's Note: This article contains general information and is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice. Please consult a professional advisor before making decisions about health-related issues.

Feature Image: Obradovic / E+ / Getty Images