Roughly 35,000 students came back to Penn State this fall for classes during the coronavirus pandemic. One out of every seven of those students contracted COVID-19 during the semester. Some Penn State students who tested positive shared their experiences with the virus and whether catching it made them more or less cautious.
Junior Nate Paisley contracted COVID-19 in mid-September. He felt "achy" and lost his sense of taste and smell for two weeks. After that he felt fine, and he found an added benefit to getting over the coronavirus.
“Now, I can kind of just like not really have to worry about it as much, which is definitely a nice relief," Paisley said.
But Paisley said he hasn’t changed how he lives too much amid the pandemic. He still wears a mask in public.
“I think it’s still important to be cautious, just because there are so many different unknowns about COVID," Paisley said.
After he tested positive, Paisley said Penn State’s contact tracing and student support services program recommended he not get tested again for 90 days because the test could produce a false positive.
Some students have interpreted that to mean they’re immune from reinfection for 90 days. But the Center for Disease Control and Prevention said that’s not so. And epidemiologists like Matthew Ferrari agree students shouldn’t let their guard down.
"We really don’t know that much about protective immunity for this thing," Ferrari said.
Ferrari is an associate professor of biology at Penn State. He says students who’ve already had coronavirus might be less likely to get sick again within that 90 day window, but they may be able to get reinfected and pass on the virus.
“It’s possible to get infected and not sick and still present risk to others," Ferrari said. "That’s the thing that we still need to be really cautious about.”
Ferrari said there’s a lot scientists still don’t know about the coronavirus. While he said an infection likely creates some degree of protection, epidemiologists are still learning how to measure it and how long it lasts.
Until more research is done, Ferrari says students should continue with basic health protocols like wearing a mask and staying socially distanced.
“We want to maintain vigilance on those fronts until we have the scientific answers that we know are coming down the road," Ferrari said.
Emily McDonald tested positive for the coronavirus in early October. But she still avoids big crowds and wears a mask wherever she goes. McDonald is a freshman studying premedicine.
She said she had a social bubble at Penn State. Many of her friends in the group tested positive and McDonald thinks she likely got the virus from them.
“Sometimes we joke around about it like ‘Oh yeah, we’re immune,’ but we don’t ever not wear our masks or go in bigger groups just because of that," McDonald said.
McDonald said the only symptom she felt from COVID-19 was being tired “all the time.” But she said following the same health protocols as she did before contracting the virus is not just for her own safety.
“I do the same thing now, just because it could affect other people worse than it affected me," McDonald said.
Junior Ellie Murphy said she has contracted COVID-19 twice. She first got the virus while at home in Duxbury, Massachusetts in late May and again in State College at the end of September.
Murphy said she was less careful in the fall than when she was at home with her family in the spring.
“I definitely wasn’t being as safe being at college," Murphy said.
But after catching the virus a second time, Murphy said she was “less worried” about contracting the coronavirus in the ensuing three months.
In mid-October, Murphy got a job at a restaurant in State College. Having gotten the virus twice, Murphy said going out for food with friends and working indoors and interacting with people didn’t stress her out.
“I got a job where it was high risk, but I knew I probably wouldn’t get it," Murphy said.
Murphy turns 21 years old over winter break and wants to enjoy State College’s night life once she’s of age. But since time may be running out on the time period she considers herself immune, Murphy said she’ll start being “extra careful” again during the spring semester.
“I don’t think I’m going to get it again, but I’m going to do everything in my power to try and stay safe because I just don’t want to do that again," Murphy said.
Just to repeat, epidemiologist Matthew Ferrari said there’s no guaranteed safe period after an infection.
And Ferrari said students will have to stay vigilant for several more months. He said since severe cases in younger age groups are less common, they’ll likely be one of the last groups to get vaccinated for coronavirus.
“You and me and our students are probably going to be looking at summer at the earliest," Ferrari said.
And even then, Ferrari said people will need to wear masks and social distance for a while until there’s herd immunity.