As college and university campuses across the country consider the upcoming fall semester and response to COVID-19, many students are dealing with uncertainty regarding how to best manage their own risks associated with the virus. Understanding how the virus spreads, who needs to take special precautions, and what to do if you suspect you or someone else may be infected can go a long way towards helping reduce risks for everyone in your campus community—including you.


What is COVID-19 anyway?

  • COVID-19 is the name for an illness associated with a specific strain of coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2). Many different kinds of coronavirus exist in the world, and the majority cause minor respiratory illnesses (such as the “common cold”). However, this specific virus has not previously been recognized in humans (it is a “novel” virus) and is now known to cause serious health problems and deaths.
  • There currently is no cure or proven treatment for infections of COVID-19. Medical care is focused around managing symptoms in the hope an infected person’s immune system can defeat the virus on its own.
  • COVID-19 has shown itself to be highly contagious and spreads easily between people—even without direct contact.

 What are the signs and symptoms of COVID-19?

  • People of any age can contract COVID-19.
  • At first, COVID-19 may seem like a common cold or flu. Fever or chills, coughing, muscle or body aches, headache, sore throat, congestion, shortness of breath, sudden loss of taste or smell, nausea or vomiting, and diarrhea are all common symptoms of COVID-19.
  • COVID-19 can also cause severe symptoms that require immediate emergency care. These include trouble breathing, chest pains or pressure, bluish lips or face, difficulty awakening or staying awake, and disorientation/unresponsiveness.
  • People with pre-existing health conditions such as asthma, diabetes, heart disease, or major obesity and those who engage in risky behaviors such as smoking or vaping tend to have a greater risk of becoming severely ill.
  • It is important to recognize that some people infected with COVID-19 may show only mild symptoms or may not show any symptoms at all (asymptomatic).
  • Testing is the only way to be 100% certain whether an illness is COVID-19 or some other infection.

How does COVID-19 spread?

  • All viruses spread differently. Some, like HIV, are blood-borne—which means the virus is passed through direct contact with infected bodily fluids. Other viruses are airborne—which means they can travel through the air. The virus that causes COVID-19 is an airborne virus that is primarily spread through respiratory droplets.
  • Droplets are particles that are often invisible to the naked eye. Human beings produce droplets when they cough, sneeze, talk, and even while breathing.
  • When someone is infected with COVID-19, the virus becomes present in the droplets they produce. When someone else comes in contact with these droplets, they also come in contact with the COVID-19 virus.
  • Anyone who is infected can transmit infected droplets—even if they are only mildly symptomatic or they have no symptoms at all.
  • Contact with droplets can occur by inhaling droplets already in the air; through airborne droplets that land in the mouth, nose, or eyes; or by touching droplets on a surface and then touching your nose, mouth, or eyes.

How can I keep from getting sick?

  • Since there is currently no vaccine or cure for COVID-19, the best way to avoid infection is to limit or eliminate sources of droplet contact.
  • Maintaining a distance of at least 6 feet between yourself and other persons can limit the amount of droplets you are in contact with. The same is true for others who wish to limit their exposure to droplets you produce.
  • Wearing a mask that covers both your nose and mouth helps reduce the number of droplets in the air and how far they travel. When more people wear masks, there are fewer infective droplets present in the air. As a result, wearing a mask can help to protect both you and others.
  • Avoiding crowded places and gatherings reduces exposure to droplets.
  • Staying home if you may have been exposed or self-isolating when you feel sick prevents exposing other people to infective droplets you transmit.
  • Washing hands frequently with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds breaks down COVID-19 and makes it less infective. Hand sanitizer with at least a 60% ethanol (ethyl alcohol) or 70% isopropanol works well too.
  • You can eliminate COVID-19 droplets on surfaces by disinfecting frequently touched surfaces and objects with an EPA-approved disinfectant like these or by using a

Should I be tested?

  • There are currently two types of tests for COVID-19—one for active infections where the virus is present in the body, and one for antibodies which shows someone has been infected but is no longer carrying the virus.
  • Tests for infection require a nasopharyngeal swab. This means a technician will place a 6-inch cotton swab up both sides of your nose and move it around for a few seconds. (It is uncomfortable but should not be painful). Results of these tests (called nucleic acid tests) are typically available anywhere between 24 hours and a few days depending on how many tests are being processed in your area.  There are also rapid tests (called antigen tests) available at some health facilities, but they can sometimes be less accurate.
  • Antibody tests require a small amount of blood to be tested, and results can be available as quickly as 45 minutes to an hour later. Antibody tests should not be used to diagnose active infection, and at present experts do not know what level of antibody makes a person immune from future infection. But an antibody test can tell you if you have had COVID-19, even if you had no symptoms or only mild symptoms.

Is it safe to be at school?

Everyone has a different comfort level when it comes to managing their risk concerning COVID-19. You should check with your individual school to learn which precautions are already in place to ensure the safety of students and staff, as well as any responsibilities you may have in returning to campus. You are likely to see many changes from what you are used to if you’ve been enrolled and on campus in the past. Or, if you are new to college, it may be different from what you expected. Rest assured that campus officials and campus health teams are making decisions with everyone’s best interests in mind. But it is an uncertain time, and it is OK to be anxious or unsure. So don’t be afraid to ask questions!