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I freaked out when my son got COVID at college: Here's what I learned

It only took two weeks on campus for our 18-year-old to get coronavirus. I thought I was prepared, but I had a lot to learn.
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/ Source: TODAY

This story was originally published in 2020 and has been updated.

Like other parents of college students going to live on campus, we approached the start of this school year with trepidation.

How would our two children — ages 18 and 21, both attending out-of-state universities — fare if they contracted COVID-19? How would they handle the virus symptoms and the responsibility of quarantine? How would we feel being so far away from them if they got sick?

It didn’t take long for us to find out. After just two weeks living in a dorm suite with three roommates at his small university, our freshman son tested positive for coronavirus.

"When we're faced with the reality of all the things we can't control, our immediate reaction is guilt.”

Initially, there were harried phone calls and texts helping him navigate his school’s very thorough protocol of testing, notifying contacts and getting a place to isolate. The school allows only a 30-minute window after testing to get quarantined, so he had to hustle back to his dorm, throw some essentials into a backpack and head out.

Thanks to the extreme generosity of one roommate’s family, which lives locally, he had a quarantine space off campus and rode out the 12 days alone in their basement. He was lucky that his symptoms were relatively mild, much like that of a bad cold with a headache, sore throat and fatigue. We were lucky there were adults checking on him routinely.

COVID-19 at college: How to cope

While my husband and I knew there was a likelihood both kids would eventually be exposed to the virus on campus, we didn’t have a great plan in place. I wasn’t prepared for the onslaught of emotions — fear, worry, guilt — triggered by the one-word text sent by our son after getting his test result: “Positive.” (He added the smiling face with sunglasses emoji for an extra-special touch.)

First, there is a paralyzing fear of the worst-case health scenario happening to your child. Although the Centers for Disease Control say that most teens and young adults are at lower risk of complications from COVID-19, some can still develop severe disease. Upon hearing he had to get tested, we sent our son a link to the CDC symptoms and he immediately texted back: “I definitely have it,” describing chills and a headache.

Related: What top pediatricians want you to know about the delta variant

Have a preventative action plan

Dr. Valda C. Crowder, a Washington D.C.-based emergency medicine physician and government health policy adviser, says it’s most important for students to go to campus with an action plan on how to stay safe.

“I'm telling parents to have a conversation about this like you would have a conversation about drunk driving. Sit them down and tell them, ‘This is not a joke,’” said Crowder, who hosts a biweekly webinar answering coronavirus-related questions.

Everything from wearing masks (have a different one for every day of the week) to diligent hand-washing to not attending large gatherings are part of a college student’s “combat coronavirus” plan.

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Students and parents should know the capabilities of the university medical center or health clinic and whether they are open 24 hours a day or just during business hours. Also, know where the closest hospital emergency department is, Crowder said.

Check in with them often

While we usually communicate with our son only once or twice a week, our anxiety fueled daily texts and calls to ask about his symptoms. (A monosyllabic teen texter, the exchange would go something like — Me: “How’s your throat?” Him: “Sore.”) While FaceTime allowed us to see him occasionally, it was difficult to gauge his recovery.

Kavita Varma-White's texts with her college freshman son after he tested positive for COVID-19.
My texts with my college freshman son after he tested positive for COVID-19.Kavita Varma-White

Dr. Myiesha Taylor, an emergency medicine physician based in Keller, Texas, suggests checking in every few hours to see how your child is doing. “During a pandemic like this, being diagnosed can make you feel emotionally isolated as well. It is important to create a virtual support network for your child and help them feel connected,” Taylor said.

She says to ask your child specifically about shortness of breath, other breathing problems, chest pain and any other recurring issues. “I would keep a daily diary of your discussions with your child,” Taylor said, in case you need to share with a physician. (Another tip: See whether your regular doctor offers virtual/tele-medicine appointments for your student while they are away at college.)

Get a pulse oximeter

Having sent both kids with an ample supply of masks, hand sanitizer, a digital thermometer, and a first aid kit, I assumed they were set for any situation. Turns out I missed one big thing.

Crowder says that once a student tests positive, a fingertip pulse oximeter is an essential item to measure blood oxygenation saturation (SpO2) levels.

“One of the things about this disease is that people get short of breath and they don't know they're short of breath,” Crowder said. “The most important thing for them to do is check their oxygenation with the pulse ox machine … twice a day.”

Crowder noted that a healthy, non-smoking person’s blood oxygenation saturation levels should measure in the 98 percent to 100 percent range when he or she is breathing normally.

“Anything less than 95 percent and they should go to the emergency room,” Crowder said, adding that this means they need to call 911 because if they're positive, they shouldn’t be in a car with someone else.

Don’t forget to ask about mental health

Whether your child has coronavirus, is worried about getting it or is stressed about other aspects of this year’s college experience, helping them manage the strain on their mental health is crucial.

Dr. Deborah Gilboa, a child development and parenting expert, said the key is for parents not to project their own stress onto their college kids.

“Don’t assume that what would be hard and stressful for you about this is what's stressful for them,” Gilboa said. “It's easy for us to look at what they are experiencing and know how we would feel. But what we can't know is how they feel, so the first thing to do is just ask. And have empathy for whatever they're experiencing without needing to feel responsible for fixing it, because you can't.”

Don’t feel guilty, whether you are the student … or the parent

When our son tested positive for coronavirus, his roommate had to quarantine in the dorm room for 14 days. Oh, the guilt … felt by our son and us! When my son said his throat hurt, the family he was staying with delivered tea and honey. Oh, the guilt … for not being able to get it for him myself!

“We feel guilty as parents about this because we overestimate what we can control. So, because we think we ought to be able to control when and how our kids stay well or get sick, or when and how they're cared for, we have this inflated sense of responsibility,” Gilboa said. “Then, when we're faced with the reality of all the things we can't control, our immediate reaction is guilt.”

Gilboa says that while guilt isn’t useful, regret is.

“If your kid is on campus, and they went to an event and they saw that people were behaving in ways that they thought were risky, but they stayed — and then they end up having to go get tested because they have symptoms or they end up positive, feeling some regret is helpful because it will change their behavior next time,” she said.

Our son is back at his dorm with no lingering health issues. So far. We know COVID-19 is wily.

Meanwhile, this week our daughter, a senior at a large state university, informed us that one of her apartment-mates has coronavirus.

Our daughter got tested and, fortunately, she is negative. But, you can bet that a pulse oximeter is already in the mail to her.

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