When Hopkins shut down due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, I knew that the second half of my semester was going to be strange. I knew that it would be hard. I imagined trying to take finals surrounded by my very loud Syrian family. I imagined finding social distancing lonely and the overabundance of family time grating. I imagined finally using my EMT training to help COVID-19 patients in my county, but I never imagined that I would become one.
I’d been sick and gone to school before, but never like this. Never isolated in my room, alone with my worsening symptoms and the guilt of forcing my family into quarantine right before Passover. Never at a time when pictures all over social media and the news were of people with the same disease as me, suddenly getting worse and dying. Never with the weight of being sick with something we know so little about, not knowing what could come next. And with school now online, a break didn’t feel justified; I could go to class without ever leaving my bed. Now that I’ve gotten to the end of this strange semester, the reality of how much being sick shaped it — even after I was out of isolation — is staggering.
Yesterday, Hopkins announced that it will be bringing students back to campus in the fall in some form. As universities prepare for their fall semesters, they’re going to think about the logistics of quarantine and isolation when their students start getting sick. They’re going to try to figure out how they can help get basic necessities to them. They’re going to provide students with ways to attend classes remotely and exceptions to strict attendance policies. They’re going to ask how they can help a bunch of 18-year-olds who have never lived on their own before take care of a friend who may be too sick to tell them what’s wrong.
However, they might not consider the fact that their students might still be recovering long after isolation. For example, one of my biggest difficulties in the weeks after isolation was a massive decrease in my executive function. I went from the most to-do-list-obsessed, Type A person you’ll ever meet to someone who didn’t know what day it was most of the time. I missed appointments and nearly missed classes because I’d completely forgotten about them. I had a lot of trouble focusing and got tired easily. I usually couldn’t get anything done past 7 p.m. because the mental fog that descended by dinnertime was too thick for even the most basic concepts of biochemistry to penetrate.
I even ended up getting “rebound symptoms,” a worsening of symptoms after almost fully recovering. The renewed coughing, combined with my fear that my awful shortness of breath would return, made it even harder to work.
Keeping those who are sick or were exposed away from the general public for as long as necessary has been a vital strategy in combating COVID-19, and doing that in dorms and student apartments is no easy feat. Quarantine and isolation were hard enough to handle while I was living with my mom, and I don’t even want to think about how hard it would have been if I had been alone in my apartment.
Little pieces of hope and connection, like my brothers’ and mom’s amazing home cooking, were what got me through isolation. Extending that same support and love to students at school is an incredible thing to do. I also appreciated how quickly a case manager from Hopkins reached out to me, letting me know that she had my back. This made being sick and being a student a bit less stressful. However, COVID-19 doesn’t stop after isolation, and therefore neither should universities.
I was in isolation for only 10 days, but it took a month to recover to the point that I was able to be as productive as I was before I got sick, and to achieve that I had to pause my MCAT studying and push my planned exam from June to August. Normally, I am days ahead on my work; this finals period, I spent 10 hours frantically finishing a project the day it was due because I had never recovered from three-and-a-half weeks of struggling to keep up. Some students may need academic accommodations for longer than just their isolation period. Universities need to take this into account when planning extensions and make-up exams for students with COVID-19.
There were also unexpected emotional hardships that came with having a pandemic disease. I recently read a Twitter thread full of people patting someone on the back because they’d posted a “warning” on Facebook about a photographer offering graduation photos, an ex-friend they suspected had COVID-19 even though they’d recently tested negative. That paranoia hangs in the air, permeating every moment of our lives. Every time I cough, I feel a thousand eyes staring at me in horror. As soon as my family was outed as having a COVID-19 case, people — including adults — started bombarding my teenage brother with messages asking if he was the sick one.
Whenever I left isolation for a late-night outing to the emergency room, I was acutely aware of every single thing I touched between my bedroom and the car. Before I got sick, I found it a little bit funny (though I didn’t dare admit it) when my brother joked about “getting my corona away from him.” A month later, when my cat got sick with an upper respiratory infection, my mom jokingly asked her if she had COVID-19. I felt too guilty to see the humor in it.
For 10 days, I was the leper of the house, a walking death trap, and that’s a hard feeling to shake, even without people “exposing” me on Facebook. Caution and fear are healthy and normal, but paranoia is not. Universities like Hopkins are in a unique position to effectively shape campus culture, and they need to attack the coming semester with a plan to keep the pervasive paranoia of COVID-19 from seeping into campus life. Something as simple as a daily or weekly update on the status of COVID-19 on campus or a bulletin from the Counseling Center offering assistance with the unique mental health challenges of the pandemic could go a long way toward shaping campus climate.
Isolation is hard — I’ll be the first to attest to that — but the challenges of COVID-19 go far beyond the sickroom door. As we prepare to re-emerge into the world we now share with COVID-19, I hope that we do it with flexibility, compassion and, like my brother does it, with a little bit of humor.
James Dweck is a rising senior from Armonk, New York studying Molecular and Cellular Biology and Writing Seminars. He is a volunteer with the Westchester Medical Reserve Corps.