My Roommate Has COVID. Now What?

What should college students living in on-campus dorms do if their roommate tests positive for COVID-19?
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Margaret Attridge is a news reporter for BestColleges focusing on higher education news stories in California. She graduated from the University of Maryland, College Park in May 2022 with a BA in journalism and government and politics....
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Updated on September 29, 2023
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  • The federal public health emergency for COVID-19 ended May 11, 2023.
  • Outbreaks will continue to occur, and many students will have to live in close proximity to a roommate who has COVID-19.
  • Public health experts recommend masking up, limiting surface cleaning products, and increasing ventilation if your roommate tests positive for COVID-19.

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, did 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.'"

As colleges and universities enter their fourth year of dealing with COVID-19, many schools are continuing to offer few restrictions or resources for college students who test positive for the virus, especially once the COVID-19 national public health emergency ended on May 11, 2023.

However, COVID-19 outbreaks continue to occur, and many students will have to face the unfortunate reality of living in close proximity to someone with COVID-19 during their time in college.

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, and Dr. Abraar Karan, an infectious disease doctor and researcher at Stanford University.

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

Karan said that while it is tough to completely avoid contracting COVID-19 while living on campus during times of high spread, he recommends wearing surgical masks with mask fitters or N95-caliber masks to reduce the chance of getting sick.

El-Sadr said she would encourage colleges and universities to continue to strongly recommend that students receive the COVID-19 vaccine and up-to-date boosters to limit severe illness and hospitalizations.

The latest booster is recommended for everyone 5 years and older by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Many campuses offer COVID-19 vaccines and booster shots at campus health clinics.

But in terms of what students can do individually to protect themselves from getting COVID-19 from their roommate, El-Sadr and Karan 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.

Karan added: "If the sick person cannot mask, at least the roommates [should] try to wear N95 masks during the day when in the room."

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, these symptoms can include fever, cough, shortness of breath, fatigue, and new loss of taste and smell.

Karan says that by the time someone tests positive, those in close contact may have been infected, so they should also test themselves for COVID-19 in the following days of the positive test.

El-Sadr recommended that all students in a shared living space should take a COVID-19 test 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 is 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."

Increasing ventilation

Optimizing ventilation is one of the keys to avoiding COVID-19. Both El-Sadr and Karan emphasized keeping windows open to create cross-ventilation in a room.

Karan recommended investing in HEPA purifiers or building do-it-yourself air filtration units, such as this one tested and verified by the CDC that uses a box fan.

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 healthcare facilities and healthcare 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?'"