Dear College Students,
This year, college life is not at all what you expected it to be. Whether it is your first or last year, and whether you are living at home, in a residence hall, or off-campus, COVID-19 has made your life challenging and disappointing. You are undoubtedly Zoom-weary and tired of all the restrictions. You look forward to getting back to normal, or at least a healthier and safer “new normal.”
Throughout this Fall, many campuses and/or surrounding communities have had COVID-19 outbreaks. More often than not, people are quick to blame the students. Students, they said, have off campus parties, don’t physically distance, and don’t consistently wear masks. While sometimes that is true, I know it is disheartening for most of you, particularly since the vast majority of students follow the public health guidelines and genuinely care about the health and safety of themselves and others. As we enter the Thanksgiving and holiday season, you may wish there was something that you could do to reduce your personal risk, protect the health of your family and friends, and send a positive, health-affirming message to your campus community (and your country). Well, there is. The American College Health Association is asking for your help and leadership as we move through this pandemic:
● Take the time now to develop a health and safety plan to reduce your personal risk and protect the health of your family and friends. If you don’t know where to start, review ACHA’s brief “Considerations for Institutions of Higher Education as Students Return Home” at https://www.acha.org/documents/Resources/COVID_19/ACHA_Brief_Considerations_for_IHEs_as_Students_Return_Home_10.29.2020.pdf.
● Consider staying on campus and not traveling for Thanksgiving. If you have an option to remain on campus or in the surrounding college community, do so. It will reduce the risk of spreading the virus to both you and your family and friends at home. This is particularly important if you have loved ones who are elderly and/or have significant risk factors for COVID-19. You will have many future holiday seasons during better and safer times. Consider a “Friendsgiving” on campus instead.
● If you do plan to travel, reduce the number of people with whom you have close contact prior to the trip. Any interactions with persons outside of your campus household or “living cohort” will increase your risk of illness. The more you can stay away from others, the safer you are to travel and arrive at home.
● If you are sick or exposed, do not travel. This is simple and vitally important. Follow the guidance from your healthcare provider regarding recommended isolation and quarantine periods. Do not travel until it can be done safely.
● Get an influenza vaccination (flu shot) prior to travel. While the COVID-19 vaccine is not yet available, influenza is preventable. Please don’t say “Happy Thanksgiving, Mom” or “Season’s Greetings, Grandpa” with the “gift” of the flu. Like COVID-19, influenza presents a major risk to the elderly and persons with high-risk conditions.
● Get tested before you leave. While it is not foolproof and only represents a single moment in time, if surveillance testing is available to you (check with your college health service), getting tested before you leave makes sense.
● While traveling, follow CDC and public health guidelines to reduce your risk of infection. Reduce the number of stops on the trip. Take a direct flight if possible, and if driving, pack food/snacks for the trip. Wear a mask, frequently wash your hands, and carry and use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol. Sit as far apart from other travelers as possible. Carefully wipe down common surfaces with disinfecting wipes in the plane or vehicle in which you are traveling. Choose a window seat if possible and open the overhead air vents to increase circulation. If driving with others, wear a mask and, if weather permits, open the windows.
● After arrival home, consider a modified self-quarantine for 14 days. Yes, this is a tough one. But it is particularly important if there are elderly family members or persons at home with high-risk conditions, and/or if there is a high prevalence of COVID-19 on or around the campus prior to leaving for home. “Modified” self-quarantine means eating meals in a private space or outdoors, with family at least 6 feet apart; using separate utensils, glasses, and plates; if possible, using a separate bathroom from other family members; avoiding physical contact including hugging, kissing, and shaking hands; wearing a mask and maintaining a distance of at least 6 feet when in the presence of others; and restricting movement within and outside the home. These are short-term sacrifices that can have a significant impact on long-term health and safety.
● Maximize ventilation and reduce numbers at family events. If you must eat indoors, open windows (as much as weather allows) and get cross ventilation. If possible, bundle up and eat outside.
● Pay careful attention to the mental health of yourself and others. Reach out for help or guidance from your primary care provider, psychologist/mental health clinician, or your college health and counseling center if you, a friend or a family member are feeling depressed, anxious or hopeless over the holidays. COVID-19 has taken a tremendous toll on the physical and mental health of our entire nation, and indeed our planet. But help is available if you ask.
● Become a vaccine advocate. Learn as much as you can about the efficacy and safety of the vaccines for SARS CoV-2 (the virus that causes the disease COVID-19) and tell family and friends what you have learned. When your priority group is selected to receive the vaccine, get vaccinated.
The holidays are an important time to reconnect with those you love, but please do so safely. You have much to offer in the weeks and months ahead. Ask good questions, keep learning, and lead by example. You are the future of this nation and we are proud of you.
Yours in health,
Michael Huey, MD
Michael Huey, MD is the Interim CEO of the American College Health Association and a former Associate Professor of Family and Preventive Medicine at the Emory University School of Medicine.
The American College Health Association is a national nonprofit association serving as the nation’s principal leadership organization for advancing the health of college students and campus communities through advocacy, education, and research. For more information, visit www.acha.org.