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How college students coming home at Thanksgiving can quarantine, keep families safe

Many are moving home this month and staying till January. Dr. Emily Landon of the University of Chicago says they should quarantine when they get home no matter where they’ve been.

Claire Daffada of Evanston, seen here before the pandemic, is staying away from others and getting tested — twice — before she comes back to Evanston from school in Madison, Wisconsin.
Claire Daffada of Evanston, seen here before the pandemic, is staying away from others and getting tested — twice — before she comes back to Evanston from school in Madison, Wisconsin.
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Claire Daffada has her re-entry home from college in the age of COVID-19 all planned out.

The 20-year-old University of Wisconsin-Madison sophomore will be coming home to Evanston from a state facing a far worse spread of coronavirus so far than Illinois — with a 34.4% test positivity rate over the past week compared to 12.6% in Illinois and 14.1% in Chicago.

So, to keep her family safe just in case she’s been exposed and doesn’t know it, Daffada has begun hunkering down alone. And she plans to stay away from other people as much as possible until her dad comes to pick her up to come home for Thanksgiving.

She’s also planning to get tested — twice — before she leaves campus.

“I’m gonna lay low these two weeks before I go home,” says Daffada, who has managed to avoid the virus despite its spread on campus. “I’m escaping. I think I’m going to run out the clock.”

Experts say her strategy is good — at least for a start.

Anyone coming from a high-risk state on Chicago’s emergency travel order needs to quarantine for 14 days anyway.

And with the coming mass migration of college and university students from all parts of the United States, it’s especially important to be careful, experts say. Many colleges are sending students home before Thanksgiving and not inviting them back until mid- to late January.

Dr. Emily Landon, executive medical director for infection prevention and control for University of Chicago Medicine, says all college students should quarantine when they get home, regardless of where they’re traveling from.

“They need to be away from everybody else,” says Landon, who offers these suggestions on how to do that:

  • Returning students should sleep in a separate area of the house, if possible, and use a separate bathroom, which should be cleaned frequently, wash their hands often and not share hand towels. The family should clean all high-touch surfaces frequently.
  • It’s not necessary to slide a plate of food under the bedroom door, but at mealtimes the student should try to sit at the far end of the table, masked except when eating or drinking. The student shouldn’t prepare food for others or share utensils.
  • Whenever the student is in the same room as family members, even if they’re more than six feet away from each other, the student should be wearing a mask at least for seven days and until getting a negative coronavirus test. Landon says it’s not necessary for other family members to mask up indoors unless they are at higher risk.
  • The student should be tested on the fifth, sixth, seventh or eighth day after coming home. That’s the window when 80% of new infections show up on a test, though it is possible to get a positive test up to 14 days after exposure. If the test is negative, the student can let up on the masks at home but should stay out of public places until the full 14-day quarantine period is over.

The Illinois Department of Public Health says quarantine means not going to work, school or public areas — or letting visitors come inside your home. It’s important to stay away from people who are 65 and older, pregnant or who have diabetes, high blood pressure, chronic disease or a weak immune system.

Starting Monday, Chicago will be under a 30-day stay-at-home advisory anyway, with a new 10-person limit on social gatherings, so returning college students won’t be much more hemmed in than anyone else.

Daffada’s roommate at UW-Madison, Katie Flynn, says she’s being careful at school until she heads home to Lincoln Park. Her family is planning to create a new bubble with just each other.

Katie Flynn of Lincoln Park, seen here on campus last February, before the pandemic, is planning to return home soon from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Katie Flynn of Lincoln Park, seen here on campus last February, before the pandemic, is planning to return home soon from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
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Flynn and her close friends haven’t contracted the virus — a situation she calls “crazy” given the high number of infections on college campuses. “I think it’s because we’ve been careful,” she says.

She expects she’ll feel safer once she’s home. “I know where my family has been,” she says.

Landon says parents and students should have a serious conversation about keeping their contacts with others extremely limited this winter.

Georgia Tech researchers have developed an online tool to assess your risk anywhere in the country. For example, in Cook County over the past week, there was a 92% chance of running into an infected person in a group of 50 people.

“You really need to have a conversation with them about what’s going to be acceptable behavior with you when they’re in your house,” Landon says. “This is not something that you can correct after the fact.”