COVID-19 Risks Grow as Students Return Home

Throughout the fall semester, Reedies have established new safety protocols and procedures, but with many students returning home, community members must reevaluate their COVID-19 safety strategies off campus. Coronavirus infection rates are higher now than at any point in the pandemic. According to the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University, last week there were an average of 174,225 new infected Americans per day, seven times as many as there were in April. While Governor Kate Brown has imposed stricter orders on gatherings and business operations in Oregon, 50 million people in the United States have gone out of town to see their elderly relatives and tens of millions more will in the next month. While Thanksgiving travel has come and gone, there is still a lot you can do to protect yourself, your family, and your fellow Reedies.

At Reed, students benefit from the school’s rigorous health protocols and isolated campus. With frequent testing and effective contact tracing, COVID-19 containment on campus has been extremely successful. However, depending on where students live, that is likely not the case at home. Most states have negligible surveillance and contact tracing, and much more potential for contact with people who are routinely practicing poor social distancing around disparate communities of people. Risk of infection and transmission increases if you’re seeing extended family for the holidays or other friends in town. Contact with people outside your immediate family is more dangerous now than it has been at any point in the pandemic. 

While there’s been rampant misinformation about the origin of and potential cures for the virus, there’s also been a lot of authentic uncertainty. Without a clear consensus on what’s most effective, it can be difficult to develop and maintain personal mitigation strategies. Currently, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) states that large respiratory droplets passed by exhaling air when we breathe and talk is the primary route of infection. They also write that while the likelihood of infection from touching objects that have come in contact with respiratory droplets or breathing fine vapor from an infected person is hard to quantify, there’s a clear risk. That risk is exacerbated when people spend time with infected people, even while masked, in enclosed spaces and do not sanitize and wash their hands frequently. 

The Quest spoke with Dr. Dan Sharp, an epidemiologist and former associate director for the CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety on how students can best practice mitigation efforts at home. He reiterated the CDC’s guidelines, that “it seems like the most likely means of getting the virus is inhaling it, not picking it up off of surfaces as we first thought.” 

His advice: “The further you stay away from people the better … wear a mask, avoid talking to people who aren’t wearing masks, and minimize your time in public and around people, especially indoors. Basically, don’t breathe other people’s air.” He generally recommends that you don’t see people, but if you do, that you see friends outdoors and from six feet apart. 

While a simple set of rules, they can be difficult to maintain in practice. As Dr. Sharp says, “we’ve gotten used to living in a risk free environment” and have become complacent on many distancing guidelines. It feels unnatural for us to separate physical closeness from emotional or social closeness, but you and your loved one’s well-being is dependent on your commitment to effectively distance yourself and wear a mask.

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