College Kid Returning Home for Thanksgiving, Winter Break? How Families Can Stay Safe During Pandemic
Many colleges will soon close until the spring semester as COVID-19
surges nationwide. A Virtua Health expert – and dad of a returning college student – offers advice.
Like many parents, Dr. Chris Pomrink will bring his son home from college for Thanksgiving and an extended winter break.
But while the Virtua Health physician will be happy to see his son Luke, he wants to protect his loved ones from a potential, unwanted visitor: COVID-19.
“Coronavirus is everywhere, and many college campuses have been hit especially hard,” said Dr. Pomrink, an internal medicine physician.
“By late September, more than 130,000 college students nationwide had tested positive for COVID-19, and that figure is much higher now,” he added. (Source: Preventing and Responding to COVID-19 on College Campuses, JAMA)
“If your son or daughter is coming home this fall or winter, it’s vital to take the necessary precautions to keep your family and community safe,” said Dr. Pomrink, whose son is a sophomore at Temple University.
In addition, Dr. Pomrink cautions against hosting guests for Thanksgiving or other get-togethers over the coming months.
“Gathering indoors with people from different households can lead to more coronavirus cases, deaths, and long-term health consequences,” he said. “We must do everything possible to reduce the spread, especially now as infection rates continue to rise.”
For families who still plan to host holiday gatherings, Virtua and other area health systems offer tips for reducing risks here: Can your Thanksgiving be enjoyable – and safe? Yes!
As a doctor and a parent, Dr. Pomrink offers the following advice for families of returning students or any new household member. Most important: have these conversations with your student before they come home, so everyone can agree on and stick to the new safety rules.
Before leaving campus
First, make sure the entire family follows all the standard COVID-19 safeguards: staying 6 feet apart and wearing a face mask when around non-household members, avoiding indoor gatherings with non-household members whenever possible, and washing hands or using hand sanitizer frequently.
In addition, the student should take extra care to avoid close contact with others for 14 days prior to coming home.
A day or two before the student leaves campus, have them get tested for COVID-19. If testing isn't available, have them get tested once they get home if possible.
“Even if the student has no symptoms, they can still have and spread the coronavirus,” said Dr. Pomrink. “We see a lot of asymptomatic cases, which can spread COVID-19.”
If the student’s first test is negative, the family may want the student to get tested again a couple days later, as an extra precaution. Dr. Pomrink recommends getting a molecular test (also called a PCR test, viral RNA test, or nucleic acid test) using a deep nasal swab, as these are the most accurate. However, no test is 100% accurate, so families should still take standard precautions for the first one to two weeks. He advises against the coronavirus antibody test, which checks for evidence of a past COVID-19 infection, but is less reliable to determine a person’s risk of transmitting COVID-19 to others.
Certain factors can indicate a student’s chances of bringing the coronavirus home, Dr. Pomrink noted. For example, families should ask:
- What is the rate of coronavirus infection on the student’s campus? The higher the rate, the greater the risk that your student may be infected.
- Has anyone in the student’s circle of friends, or in the group’s next layer of contacts, had COVID-19 recently? If so, the student is more likely to be infected.
- Has the student already had COVID-19? If they had the illness and recovered more than 14 days ago, they are unlikely to still be contagious.
In the Pomrinks’ case, Luke contracted the coronavirus this fall at college, and has been symptom-free for several weeks.
“He probably has some immunity right now, although we don’t know how long that protection will last,” said Dr. Pomrink, who was briefly hospitalized with the virus in March.
While heading home, continue to limit contact with others as much as possible. Driving is generally safer than flying or taking public transportation, as the student will have close contact with fewer people.
If you are driving the student, have everyone in the car wear a mask, keep windows cracked open, and set the ventilation system to bring in outside air.
“Studies show that keeping windows open can help decrease transmission,” said Dr. Pomrink.
When you must be around others – such as when stopping for gas or picking up a meal – wear a mask and remain at least 6 feet away whenever possible. Wash your hands or use hand sanitizer after touching door handles, gas pumps, credit-card machines, and the like. Bring disinfecting wipes to clean surfaces you cannot avoid, such as high-touch parts of a rental car or your airplane seat and tray. And avoid touching your face at all times.
For more information, see the CDC’s Travel Considerations.
The safest scenario is to keep the student separated (isolated) from other household members for 14 days. That’s because the incubation period – the time between exposure to the virus and the start of symptoms – lasts up to 14 days. Those who are infected but do not show symptoms can still pass the virus to others.
If the student tested negative for COVID-19 shortly before or after arriving home, has no symptoms, and has been adhering to all safety guidelines, the family may feel comfortable shortening the isolation period, said Dr. Pomrink.
“In these situations, the chance of the student being infected drops to lower levels, but doesn’t fall to zero until day 14,” he noted. “Each family has to decide the level of risk that makes them comfortable, and consider whether there are household members who may be more vulnerable, such as those who are older or who have other health conditions.”
While the student is isolating, all household members should wear a mask when in shared areas of the home. Keep windows open as much as possible.
If feasible, avoid having the student share a bathroom. If the student must share a bathroom with others, the other family members should delay using the room immediately after the isolated person, ideally waiting two or three hours, and should also wear a mask.
If others share a bathroom with the isolated person, they should all use a separate tote to keep their toothbrush and other personal items off the countertop.
Also, keep disinfecting wipes and disposable gloves in the shared bathroom. Ask the isolating student to use the gloves and wipes to clean surfaces before leaving the bathroom, including the sink, countertop, and door handles.
Other household members should not go in the student’s room. If the student must share a bedroom, place beds at least 6 feet apart, if possible, and sleep head to toe. You can also separate beds with a physical barrier, such as a room divider, shower curtain, large quilt, or even a big piece of cardboard.
If the student has or develops any symptoms of COVID-19, contact their health care provider for additional instructions. In most cases, the student will need to isolate for another 14 days after the start of symptoms.
The remaining stay
After the isolation period, if no household member shows coronavirus symptoms, families can resume close contact with each other and stop wearing masks at home when no other visitors are present.
Nevertheless, it’s still important for everyone to limit their risk of contracting COVID-19 – and passing it to other household members.
People who live in households with those who are at high risk for serious complications from COVID-19 should act as though they, too, are at high risk. These individuals include people age 65 and older, and those of any age with underlying medical conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, and lung disease.
In general, Dr. Pomrink advises everyone to:
- Limit errands to those that are essential, such as grocery shopping and medical appointments.
- Wear a mask when doing such activities, and remain at least 6 feet from others.
- Wipe down shopping carts with disinfecting wipes.
- Wash your hands thoroughly or use hand sanitizer before heading home and after you enter your house.
Protecting mental health
Parents should also consider family members’ emotional well-being during this difficult period.
“We’re seeing a lot of patients with depression and anxiety,” said Dr. Pomrink.
Therefore, parents may want to allow young adults to get together with friends periodically, as long as they follow social-distancing rules, wear a mask over their nose and mouth, and – preferably – remain outdoors.
“Make sure they truly understand that they need to protect other family members, not just themselves,” said Dr. Pomrink.
“For example, they could cause a parent or grandparent to become very sick. Explain that Mom or Dad can’t afford to be sick and out of work for two or three weeks; that as parents, we need to provide for the family and the student’s education.”
He advises parents to watch for signs of depression, but to also understand that college students – like everyone else – are going to feel unhappy at times.
The Pomrink family, which includes Dr. Pomrink’s wife and his five children, plans to enjoy some virtual gatherings with other loved ones.
“This isn’t easy for any of us, but if we can stay as safe as possible through this winter, I think we’ll see much better days ahead.”
To learn more about preventing coronavirus and safeguarding your health, please visit Virtua Health’s Expert Tips and Information webpage.