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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  • The federal public health emergency for COVID-19 ends 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.
  • Dr. Wafaa El-Sadr from Columbia University recommends masking up, limiting the surface cleaning products, and opening windows.

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 the COVID-19 pandemic entered its fourth year, many colleges scaled back COVID-19 restrictions, and more are expected to follow suit after May 11, when the COVID-19 national public health emergency will end.

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.

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

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?'"