My Roommate Has Covid. Now What?

College students are back on campus for the fall semester amid fewer COVID-19 restrictions. What do they do if their roommate tests positive?

Published September 21, 2022

Edited by Raneem Taleb-Agha
My Roommate Has Covid. Now What?
COVID-19
Photo by Shuran Huang / The Washington Post / Getty Images

  • While colleges limit or eliminate access to quarantine dorms, college students are concerned about living alongside Covid-positive roommates.
  • Dr. Wafaa El-Sadr from Columbia University recommends masking up, limiting the surface cleaning products, and opening windows.
  • Students have taken to social media apps to voice their concerns on how schools are handling COVID-19 cases.

American University Senior Kayla Kelly had no clue what to do when they got the news their roommate had tested positive for COVID-19.

Their school, like so many around the country, does not have the option of quarantine or isolation housing for the fall semester. So, Kelly was left to sleep feet from a sick person.

"I bought medical-grade gloves. I bought Clorox spray for the air and for our hardware,” they told BestColleges. “Every time that I walked into the room I would spray [it] down … We sprayed down everything and it kind of felt rude because I'm like, 'Oh ew, here are your germs.'"

Many students this year are being faced with the unfortunate reality of having to live in close proximity to someone with COVID-19. And like Kelly, many students are taking matters into their own hands.

To learn the best practices for students who are living with somebody who has COVID-19, BestColleges connected with Dr. Wafaa El-Sadr, professor of epidemiology and medicine at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University.

Here’s What Students Can Do To Stop the Spread of COVID-19

As federal and state public health agencies relax COVID-19 guidance, colleges are scaling back or completely removing on-campus isolation housing.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now considers a college dorm to be a "lower risk congregate setting due to the lower risk of severe health outcomes (such as hospitalization and death) associated with young adults."

Many schools instituted isolation in place measures last spring, El-Sadr said. Since then, there has not been any data suggesting that this has, or has not, caused a notable uptick in cases.

Insead, the increased cases on college campuses this fall are mostly a result of variants and sub-variants of the virus, she said.

However, El-Sadr said she would encourage colleges and universities to continue to strongly recommend, if not mandate, that students receive the COVID-19 vaccine and up-to-date boosters to limit severe illness and hospitalizations.

Additionally, El-Sadr praised schools that had invested in upgraded ventilation systems.

But in terms of what students can do individually to protect themself from getting COVID-19 from their roommate, Dr. El-Sadr shared these recommendations:

Mask up

"We strongly recommend that the person diagnosed with COVID-19 should be wearing a mask indoors and when they are in the company of someone else," El-Sadr said.

Two-way masking, or masking up for both roommates, is even more effective.

Monitor your own health

Students should keep an eye on their own symptoms. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), these symptoms can include fever, cough, shortness of breath, fatigue, and new loss of taste and smell.

El-Sadr recommended that all students in a shared living space should take a COVID-19 test after five days after their roommate tests positive.

Lay off the Lysol

Although it's tempting to buy all the disinfecting sprays and wipes when someone close to us is sick, El-Sadr said there’s no need to overload on these products.

"While early on in the Covid pandemic, there was a lot of attention to using Lysol and surface cleaning and wiping, over time we have realized that it is not a major route of transmission…and the vast majority of transmission are due to the respiratory route," she said.

"It is a good practice to keep clean surfaces, but less emphasis needs to be paid to cleaning surfaces."

Open your windows

Optimizing ventilation is one of the keys to avoiding COVID-19. El-Sadr said that in nice weather, students should keep their windows open to create cross-ventilation in their rooms.

Over-communicate your concerns with student health services

More than anything, students should communicate concerns and seek attention from their campus' student health services, El-Sadr said.

"If the student has an underlying condition … and there is concern that if they get coronavirus, they will have a more severe illness for example, they can share those concerns with student health services. That is a confidential interaction between students and providers," she said.

"I think then there can be an evaluation made, and under certain circumstances, it may be appropriate to move that student to another place or room while the initial roommate is recovering."

"All schools do have resources that can assist in answering questions accurately, acting on concerns, and so on. Don't keep those thoughts to yourself."

Communicate clearly with your roommate and maintain their privacy

HIPAA may be used as a reason why you can't communicate with people about a COVID-19 diagnosis.

El-Sadr said that HIPAA applies to health care facilities and health care providers, but not roommates. Instead, she stressed that there should always be respect for people's confidentiality and privacy.

"If someone discloses to you that they have been diagnosed with COVID-19, you can let them know you appreciate them telling you that information," she said.

"Every step of the way, it is important to maintain confidentiality and to always ask the person, 'Have you told others? Are you comfortable telling others?'"

Students Take COVID-19 Concerns to TikTok

Back in American University student housing, Kelly was not required to isolate, even though their roommate was positive.

"I wasn't required to be in isolation, I'm just encouraged to mask, and I can't bring over people to our room, but I can go out as normal,” they said. “But, I obviously was not a fan of that because in our dorm we share one space, there are no separate rooms."

Kelly took their frustrations to TikTok. Their video now has over 150,000 views and 32,000 likes.

@kayismagicall

society if ppl still cares about covid

♬ original sound - maastoneprophetes

"It felt good to have people to support you … People reached out to ask if I needed a place to stay, if I needed any financial compensation for things I had bought for myself that the university hasn't provided me, [and] just this sense of community from people that are impacted from this virus," Kelly said.

Comments on their video echoed similar frustrations with how colleges were handling positive cases.

@mereyberry commented: "my college too !!! we also have no isolation housing because we overadmitted the freshman class and they told us to wear a kn95 at all times."

@notphoenixarizona said: "mine sent an email saying they have no isolation accommodations available and if we get covid we need to leave right away like ??"

Fortunately, Kelly continued to test negative, and soon after, their roommate did as well. Looking back, Kelly says that they wished they had received more support and resources from their school.

"Everything was on me to protect myself, which was sort of annoying, and I wish I had some type of compensation for that or any sort of relief,” they said. “I had to live within three feet of someone with COVID-19, which was new to me."

They were equally frustrated with the lack of communication from the school.

"I actually reached out to my [residence assistant] about this issue … but they couldn't do anything about it," they said. "I took it into my own hands to research what to do if someone in your household has Covid, which is a little bit scary."