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Experts Fret COVID-19 Tags Along With Students Returning Home For Holidays


COVID infections are spreading really fast in college towns. So if you have a kid who's coming home for the holidays, how do you keep yourself safe? NPR's Yuki Noguchi has been talking to epidemiologists about how to minimize risk.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Sandy Kretschmer pictures her son Henry returning from college, dropping his bags and then...

SANDY KRETSCHMER: Well, yes, I will give him a hug, but I'll probably have a mask on, and he'll have a mask on when I hug him.

NOGUCHI: Days before, he'll self-quarantine and take a COVID-19 test. He and his friend will drive home to Chicago, masked up, with the windows rolled down to circulate air. Kretschmer's family has risks. She's had pneumonia. Her husband has an autoimmune disease. And his 78-year-old father is in hospice care. Around Iowa State, where her son is a junior, infections are spiking, along with the rest of the country. So her son is taking no chances.

KRETSCHMER: He's sort of like the COVID police.

NOGUCHI: He recently sent her photos of other students standing in line to get into bars.

KRETSCHMER: He's like, these people are going to go home over Thanksgiving and kill a relative (laughter).

NOGUCHI: Epidemiologists say now is the time families need to plan how to reintegrate safely. Ideally, students and families should self-quarantine for two weeks beforehand. Some colleges, including The State University of New York, require on-campus students to test negative prior to returning home. But not all students can or will quarantine. And there's also a risk of infection while traveling. Portland, Ore., epidemiologist Judy Guzman-Cottrill says keep the students masked up after they return home. Take another test. And in the meantime, keep 6 feet of distance, even if that means eating turkey in separate rooms.

JUDY GUZMAN-COTTRILL: The only time that they should be removing their mask should be when they are eating. And, you know, eating in a separate room, I think, is the safest decision - or eating outdoors.

NOGUCHI: Talking to family through masks may feel like it takes the humanity and warmth out of the holidays. But Guzman-Cottrill says any place where 5% or more COVID-19 tests return positive is a high-risk zone. Before traveling, parents should evaluate risks for each campus. What's the infection rate? Does the school test students? Does it test those without symptoms?

GUZMAN-COTTRILL: This week, I'm hearing about more outbreaks that were related to Halloween gatherings. Hospitals are filling up again, and the timing really just couldn't be worse for students returning from campuses and families considering multigenerational Thanksgiving feasts.

NOGUCHI: Amira Roess is an epidemiologist at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. Her school's aggressive testing has contained the virus, but some students decided to remain on campus.

AMIRA ROESS: There are students who are choosing to stay in the dorms because they have family members that are high risk.

NOGUCHI: Infectious disease specialist Ravina Kullar says that isn't necessary in most cases.

RAVINA KULLAR: I don't recommend that because it's like, you know, I feel like mental health is so important now, too.

NOGUCHI: But she says have a plan. Kullar herself flew across country to visit her mother last month. She chose an airline that didn't book the seat next to her. Everyone remained masked the entire way.

KULLAR: And I did not hug my mom until I got back and I took a shower. I self-quarantined two weeks before. So I did all those measures to make it as safe as possible.

NOGUCHI: And that's what she also recommends for students and their families.

Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROCKET MINER'S "MY FRIEND COMA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Yuki Noguchi is a correspondent on the Science Desk based out of NPR's headquarters in Washington, D.C. She started covering consumer health in the midst of the pandemic, reporting on everything from vaccination and racial inequities in access to health, to cancer care, obesity and mental health.