Students who test positive encouraged to isolate in Waco before heading home

Some students have to self isolate during the holidays in order to protect their family members during break. Photo illustration by Emileé Edwards | photographer

By Sarah Pinkerton | Staff Writer

As Thanksgiving nears and on-campus instruction comes to an end, students are encouraged to self-isolate and quarantine in Waco if they test positive for COVID-19 to prevent the spread of the virus back home.

In an email last week by the COVID-19 Health Management Team, students were informed that “COVID-19 cases and related hospitalizations are spreading rapidly across the country and Texas and within Waco and McLennan County. Our campus has recently experienced a steady increase of cases since the end of October, including more than 100 active cases over the past several days for the first time since mid-September.”

While students were encouraged to take advantage of free rapid testing before they head home, Dr. Jim Marsh, dean of Student Health and Wellness, said that isolation and quarantine housing is also available for students to take advantage.

“I know that that would not be a lot of fun for anyone, but if someone tests positive, we have the isolation housing that is available, particularly for our on-campus students who wouldn’t have a place to stay,” Marsh said.

However, he said that there is no way to force a student to remain in quarantine.

“They would need to self-isolate whether they are here or wherever they went,” Marsh said. “It’s much easier. Everything is set up here for them to self-isolate here. It would be harder if they went home and around people because they would be exposing those individuals to the virus.”

He said that while there is a check in and check out process for isolation housing, students are able to isolate in another location if they choose.

“We know who’s there,” Marsh said. “So there’s a check in, check out, but if somebody decides to check out, they’re gonna check out. We’re not able to hold them there … However, whoever it is though, you would need a plan for isolating somewhere else.”

He additionally recommends that students don’t travel during this period as well.

“The CDC can restrict the travel of people who are known or believed to have COVID-19,” Marsh said. “They can place people on what’s called a ‘Do Not Board’ list, so once a person is placed on that list, airlines will not issue a boarding pass to that person for any commercial flight within, arriving to or departing from the United States.”

While students that live in on-campus housing are not able to return to their housing after on-campus instruction ends, testing will still be available for off-campus students who decide to return to Waco for final exams.

“We’re going to continue to encourage folks to come in and get tested,” Marsh said. “That does present a risk, honestly, for people to travel and then to come back.”

He also said that all student employees will be tested after Thanksgiving break.

“We just don’t know who’s here and who’s not here,” Marsh said. “We don’t know who’s off campus but we do believe it’s going to be really, really, really important for our off-campus students to test after Thanksgiving.”

Dr. Sharon Stern, medical director, said that students are encouraged to stay home for the duration of finals, as the transmission rates in McLennan County are currently high.

“Let’s say, for instance, you go home at Thanksgiving, and everything’s great, and then you come back to Waco and somehow or other get COVID, and then you’re unable to go home for Christmas because you don’t want to risk exposing your family if it’s in that 10 day window of time,” Stern said.

She said that in order to prevent a positive test before heading home, students should aim to stay at home and stay within their close-knit pods.

“Roommates and maybe a couple of other friends, everybody forms these COVID pods,” Stern said. “And that is a safer way to function inside of that than to constantly be with a lot of other people.”

She also recommends that students wear a mask when not around these pods.

“Especially as everyone is heading home because I know nobody wants to feel responsible for causing someone in their family to get really, really sick,” Stern said.

Stern additionally predicts a spike in cases once students return to campus in January for the spring semester.

“This is an important transition period for all colleges and universities,” Stern said. “Our national, state and local guidance for universities has been, we really want to manage this transition of sending students back home very carefully.”