In addition to comforters and shower shoes, your 2020 fall packing list will probably need some additions and modifications thanks to COVID-19.
Here are some things that you might want to add to your dorm-room inventory, including some obvious packing additions like masks, as well as some items that aren’t so obvious.
How you could get COVID-19 at college
Before we jump into the packing list, it’s helpful to have a working knowledge of how COVID-19 spreads. That way, you'll be better able to evaluate risks in different situations while you’re at school. Here's a quick primer based on info from the Centers for Disease Control.
COVID-19 is generally spread through respiratory droplets that are expelled from an infected person and then breathed in by another person. Respiratory droplets are expelled every time someone breathes, speaks, coughs, or sneezes. Coughing and sneezing cause a large amount of droplets to be released at once. Singing, shouting, or breathing heavily during exercise also cause large quantities of respiratory droplets to become airborne.
Infected respiratory droplets may linger in the air for up to three hours. So yes, that's means it's possible to become infected in an empty room, by breathing air that someone else has left behind.
You can't tell if someone is infected just by looking at them. People are often contagious before they begin showing symptoms. In fact, some people may have COVID-19 and never experience symptoms at all. However, anyone with an active infection may be capable of spreading infection, even if they feel fine.
As far as we know at the moment, there's no evidence that COVID-19 spreads through food. However, it's still important to wash your hands before eating, and also frequently throughout the day.
Symptoms to watch out for
If you start experiencing any symptoms of COVID, you should call your school’s medical center to find out what you should do next. NOTE: It’s important to call first, because they probably have certain steps they’ll want you to follow before going in. However, if you or a classmate start experiencing extreme symptoms, call 911 or go to an emergency room.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, COVID symptoms include:
- Fever or chills
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Muscle or body aches
- New loss of taste or smell
- Sore throat
- Congestion or runny nose
- Nausea or vomiting
Symptoms generally appear 2-14 days after exposure to the virus. Of course, be sure to self-isolate if you believe you have may have COVID so that you don't expose others.
Your to-do list before you leave for school
Even if you feel healthy, a “well visit” with your doctor can help uncover any medical conditions that might benefit from early treatment. If you don't have a regular doctor, most urgent care facilities offer appointments for checkups. Having a healthcare practitioner take a listen to your heart and lungs can offer some assurance that you’re leaving for college in good health.
Keep in mind that underlying conditions, such as diabetes, heart conditions, or lung issues, may put you at higher risk for suffering serious complications from COVID.
While you’re at the doc, ask for:
- Any vaccinations or booster shots that you may be due for, especially for bacterial meningitis. This is a serious disease that can spread rapidly in the close quarters of dorm living, and it can be fatal or leave you with life-long complications. In fact, many states require proof of vaccination before you enroll. Important: There are two different meningitis vaccines and each protects against different strains of the illness. Learn more here.
- An order for blood work, if you fall into a high-risk category for certain conditions such as diabetes, high cholesterol, anemia, or hepatitis. A CBC, or “complete blood count,” will measure different components in your blood to provide an overview of your general health and help diagnose certain conditions.
- Refills for any prescriptions you already take. Ask for hard-copy prescriptions so you can easily take them to a pharmacy near your school, or ask your doctor to send the electronic order to a drug store near your campus.
- A vision screening. While your regular doc won’t be able to provide a prescription for glasses or contacts, they will be able to get a baseline reading. That can help you decide whether to seek additional appointments with an optometrist or ophthalmologist.
- Any special instructions regarding inhalers or nebulizers, if you use them. If you have asthma or allergies and you see a specialist, ask for a pulmonary function test to get a baseline reading on your lung function. This test can evaluate the condition of your large and small airways and can help inform decisions about maintenance inhalers and asthma/allergy action plans.
Your 'stay safe' packing list
Cloth masks (at least 2-3)
When it comes to choosing a mask, the most important thing to know that any mask is better than no mask. Avoid masks with air vents, as they're actually less effective at blocking respiratory droplets.
If you’re bringing disposable masks, be sure to pack plenty. Technically, these masks are not designed for multiple uses and they tend to wear out quickly. Cloth masks will last longer so they may be a more practical solution.
According to guidance from Johns Hopkins University, a cloth mask should suffice for most people who aren’t working in healthcare facilities. Ideally, the mask should have two layers of fabric and should cover your nose and mouth without leaving large gaps. (Yes, you must wear the mask over your nose in order for the mask to work!)
Your mask can have ear loops or elastic that secures around the back of your head, depending on which is more comfortable. Masks that include a bendable border at the nose are great for people who have glasses because they can prevent lenses from fogging up.
Ideally, you should launder your mask after every use. Since that’s probably not feasible in a dorm situation, make sure you have several masks so you can swap them out. If you can’t get to the laundry facility between uses, wash your masks in the sink with soap and hot water. Hang your mask until it dries or leave it on a sunny window sill.
Wipes or disinfectant spray
Touching COVID-19 germs will not make you sick because the virus is not transmitted through the skin. However, they could cause an infection if you touch a contaminated surface and then touch your mouth, nose, or eyes. Be sure to regularly wipe down your electronics and any other "high-touch" items you may carry or use. You may also want to regularly wipe off your door knob or other items other people may have touched.
Hand sanitizer or hand soap, including travel-size
Frequent hand washing is your best defense against all kinds of infections, including COVID-19. Make sure you have the supplies to clean your hands frequently. Be sure to toss a container of hand sanitizer into your backpack so you can sanitize when you're away from the dorm.
As we mentioned above, people with pre-existing conditions are more likely to suffer dangerous complications from COVID. It’s important to keep yourself healthy, including ensuring that any medical conditions are well-controlled.
If you have asthma or allergies, be sure you have extra inhalers. Double check your prescriptions and make sure you have a plan for refilling them.
Latex gloves (optional)
Gloves aren't necessary, since frequent handwashing should be just as effective at eliminating exposure to surface germs. However, latex gloves may provide an extra level of security in certain settings.
Not everyone who has COVID-19 gets a fever, but it’s a common symptom. Having a thermometer on-hand is a good source of information if you need to call the doctor or campus medical center.
Pulse oxygen meter
These handy devices help you quickly check your oxygen saturation levels. Why that may be important: Medical professionals in COVID hot spots have observed that COVID patients sometimes come into the ER complaining of only mild symptoms, even though their oxygen levels are dangerously low. Having a pulse oximeter can help alert you to symptoms that may not be immediately obvious.
How it works: Just insert your finger into the device to get your oxygen-saturation reading. Readings between 95 and 100 are considered to be in the normal range. If you have a sustained reading below that, call your campus medical center, your doctor, or 911.
Ibuprofen or other fever reducers
Ibuprofen, acetaminophen, or naproxen can help alleviate COVID symptoms such as headaches and body aches. They can also help reduce fevers. Current medical guidance is that any of these over-the-counter remedies are safe to take during COVID (assuming you were already able to take them).
Cash and a get-away plan
Many college campuses closed suddenly last spring. Hopefully that won’t happen this fall, but it’s smart to be prepared just in case. Make sure you have enough cash (or room on a credit or debit card) to fund your trip home if you have to leave campus quickly.
Take a little time to think through your quick-exit plan. Will you drive or catch a ride with someone? Will you take public transportation? Where will you go if you're not able to return home? A little planning now can save a lot of frustration later.
Your 'go bag'
Yep, this is exactly what it sounds like. Have a small, easy-to-carry duffel or backpack on-hand in case you need to leave campus quickly. You can even pack it in advance and have it ready to go.
Your insurance card
In addition to having the physical card, it’s smart to take a pic of the front and back as well. Save the images to your phone so you always have them with you.
Your emergency contacts
Most first responders are trained to look for emergency contacts in people’s phones — and many phones allow you to designate an emergency number that can be accessed without unlocking the home screen.
A quick Google search should tell you how to set up your emergency contact for your phone model.
Your list of excuses for avoiding high-risk events
Honesty is always the best policy. But even during a global pandemic, many of us feel awkward about saying that we don't want to participate in certain activities. We all have different comfort levels about what we feel is OK or not. And, the fact is, there are plenty of people who do not believe the virus is a problem at all.
If you want to avoid certain activities and you feel uncomfortable being direct, keep some of these excuses in your back pocket:
- I have to study/work on term paper.
- I promised myself I'd get up early for a run tomorrow morning.
- I would love to go but I have to be extra careful because I’m going to see my grandmom (or other high-risk relative) next week. I promised I’d be a hermit until then.
- My allergies acting up and I’m not feeling well.
- I have a migraine.
- I’m exhausted.
- I'm feeling a little anxious/depressed, and I need to take some time for self-care.
- I'm just not comfortable. Sorry!
Remember this one thing
COVID-19 has changed so many things for so many of us, but remember: This, too, shall pass.
In the meantime, keep in mind that YOU are in charge of your health and your exposure levels. If you have a gut feeling that something might be unsafe, follow that instinct — even if that means missing out on fun activities or socializing. Look out for yourself, be smart, and make the best of this semester.