Will college students bring COVID-19 home for Thanksgiving?

Weston Kerekes plans to eat his Thanksgiving dinner alone in his childhood bedroom in Santa Monica, California.

If all goes as planned, the Yale University freshman’s quarantine will have followed a tightly choreographed trip from his New Haven, Connecticut, campus to ensure he doesn’t expose his parents to Covid-19.

“He’ll take a Covid-19 test 72 hours before he leaves campus and then he will wear an N95 (mask) and goggles from the moment he steps into the airport,” said Erika Kerekes, his mother, who has asthma, high blood pressure and diabetes. “On the plane he won’t eat or drink anything or use the bathroom.”

Once he tests negative, after several days of quarantining, the Kerekes family will be able to live together without wearing masks or social distancing.

Welcome to the 2020 holiday season, which is more than a little bit fraught. Take the State University of New York system, which just announced that its 140,000 students must test negative if they want to leave any of the 64 schools in the state’s system for Thanksgiving to avoid community spread.

During this ongoing public health emergency, schools such as the University of South Carolina, Syracuse University and Emory University has already rewritten their academic calendar to end the in-person semester at Thanksgiving.

That means students won’t return to campus until January 2021, while others, such as The George Washington University and the California State University system have recently announced plans to continue holding classes virtually in the spring.

With students testing positive at many campuses nationwide, the goal is to mitigate risk. This has left many parents facing the tough decision of having to tell their son or daughter to stay far from home for Thanksgiving.

Unless your student’s return-home plan is airtight, infectious disease experts are urging students taking classes in person to shelter in place — on campus.

“The only way to go home safely is for a student to bubble for 14 days,” said epidemiologist Michael Osterholm, a regents professor and McKnight presidential endowed chair in public health at University of Minnesota and the director of its Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy. He now serves on President-elect Joe Biden’s Covid-19 task force.

“If you’re on campus, you have an all-too-real risk of becoming infected.”

Without testing, a student can be asymptomatic and unknowingly take the virus home — along with that semester’s worth of laundry.

“This means that the first inkling that your son or daughter is infected will occur the day after Thanksgiving, which is when he or she will start to feel sick,” Osterholm said. “If your entire family has gathered for the holiday, there’s a risk that everyone will get sick. It’s these small gatherings that concern us greatly.”

Sketch out a meticulous plan

That said, if your child must come home or if his or her school’s semester ends as of Thanksgiving week, the entire family has to take concrete steps to avoid exposure to the virus.

“When it comes to Covid-19, it’s not about what you do, it’s how you do it,” said Iahn Gonsenhauser, chief quality and patient safety officer at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “It’s hard to do this right, as there’s a lot you have to account for.”

That’s why 14 days of very strict precautions prior to traveling is mandatory. “This means lockdown strict, avoiding any social interaction or going to restaurants, bars and parties for everyone in the household — parents, too,” said Gonsenhauser, who helped develop Covid-19 safety protocols for Ohio State students. “For this to work, everyone in the family has to be willing to make that sacrifice.”

Testing also has to be timed smartly, too, with days built in before and after the test to make sure there aren’t any false negatives.

“Your student will need to quarantine for three to five days prior to testing and then remain in quarantine until a test comes back negative,” he said. “Remember: It can take up to three days after an exposure to test positive.”

What’s more, keep in mind that the trip home — whether by car or airplane — must also be planned out in detail.

“Your student has to take a lot of precautions,” he said. “If students have to go home, I’d prefer for them to drive since an airport bathroom has way more possibility of crowding and potential exposure than, say, a highway rest stop. Also, a gas pump or electric charger is easier to clean with a wet wipe than an airplane seat.”

Seva Poitevin, a senior at Beloit College in Beloit, Wisconsin, is driving home to her parents’ house in Rockford, Illinois, for Thanksgiving. She acknowledges the risks involved with the trip, especially in light of Wisconsin’s skyrocketing Covid-19 cases, but she said she has devised a plan to get home safely.

“I’ll be tested on campus two days before Thanksgiving and drive home without making any stops,” she said of the two-hour trip.

She’ll then remain in quarantine until she tests negative.

“My mom will leave food outside of my bedroom door,” she said. “I’m more than happy to do this because it will keep me and my family safe. In fact, I’m planning to do it this way every time I come home until there’s a vaccine.”

Protecting the older generation

Sadly, the grandparents shouldn’t be seated at your table this year.

“I know this is emotionally charged and painful, but the last thing we want to see happen is for anyone to take the virus home to older relatives,” Osterholm said.

Renee Milstein’s two daughters, both of whom attend Syracuse University, will be tested before they leave campus. The Milsteins’ Thanksgiving will likely be a small dinner for four, not one that typically includes extended family.

“My mother has dementia and doesn’t go out,” said Milstein, who lives in Chappaqua, New York. She wants to keep her mother safe. “I hate to be a downer, but I don’t think this should be the year for a big Thanksgiving gathering,” she said.

It’s also the year for thinking about the “we,” not the “me,” when it comes to spending time together, Gosenhauser said.

“If you can’t commit to assuring family members that each individual has gotten out of the window of potential transmission, don’t get together,” he said.

“Remember that masking and social distancing at dinner, whether inside or outside, isn’t going to be enough of a precaution. Your masks will be down when you’re eating and drinking and it’s very difficult to socially distance 6 feet apart at a table set for the entire family.”

It may be a bitter pill but, in the end, the wisest choice might be for your student to skip the plane or train home and stay on campus.

“To be completely safe, this should be the year we celebrate Thanksgiving on Zoom,” Osterholm said. “The best gift all of us can give to our families is to make sure we don’t infect each other.”

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