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‘A sobering experience’: Students who contracted COVID-19 look back

<h6>Sydney Peng / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Sydney Peng / The Daily Princetonian

Grace Rosenberg ’23 was sitting on the outdoor patio of a restaurant in August when she felt a sinking sensation in her gut. 

“I had this weird feeling of recklessness … that I’m doing something I shouldn’t be doing,” said Rosenberg, who had spent much of the summer living on a remote farm. A self-described “germaphobe,” Rosenberg had taken rigorous precautions to avoid contracting COVID-19.

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Just days after what was her first dinner out in months, Rosenberg learned that her anxiety had been prescient. Driving to visit her grandparents, she received the results of an at-home coronavirus test she took as a precaution. She tested positive. Rosenberg turned around and went home to isolate.

Rosenberg, a contributing writer at The Daily Princetonian, later wrote about the experience in The Prospect.

Stories similar to Rosenberg’s are increasingly common among University students. As the COVID-19 pandemic wears on, the ‘Prince’ sat down with three students to hear their experiences with the disease and to learn their advice for fellow Princetonians.

One sophomore, granted anonymity for health reasons, told a similar story. Near her home, COVID-19 cases spiked in July as many people, tired of lockdown restrictions, flocked to the beach. Unlike them, though, she remained vigilant.

“I only went out one time within a month-long period, just to see a friend, and we had a socially distant picnic,” she said. “We did pick up food, but that was the only social contact I had.” 

The sophomore pinpointed that meal as when she likely contracted the virus. 

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“The most infuriating part,” she said, “is that I was mostly at home.”

For one student currently on leave, testing positive did not come as such a surprise. Like many students, he joined many crowded goodbyes during his final days on campus. When he returned home, he began to experience COVID-19 symptoms, starting with a persistent dry cough.

At the time, he was not able to access a test, but after conducting some “personal contract tracing” and learning that many of his Princeton friends tested positive for COVID-19, he concluded that he probably contracted the virus as well. A positive antibody test one month later confirmed his suspicion. 

While the gap year student expected his results, Rosenberg and the sophomore were frustrated with their positive tests. They had watched others throughout the country make unsafe decision after unsafe decision, but they had both been careful. “I was pretty salty,” the sophomore said.

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“Part of me was very selfishly wondering why this happened to me specifically,” she continued. 

But the numbers are there. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated 8.31 million people in the United States — approximately 2 percent of the American population — had contracted COVID-19 as of Oct. 22, 2020. As of today, there are hundreds of thousands of new cases per week.

None of the students interviewed for this article suffered life-threatening symptoms, though they experienced varying levels of illness. Rosenberg, who tested positive on Aug. 14 along with the person she was living with, shared that she might have experienced a light cold and very light fever, mild symptoms “very much in line with what people my age were supposed to experience.”

She conceded, however, that she could have “psyched herself into [these] symptoms.”

The sophomore, as the only member of her family to test positive, was not so lucky. “What gave it away for me,” she said, “was that I was constantly dehydrated.” Noticing that her usual three cups of water per day were not doing the trick, she upped her consumption to one and a half gallons daily. 

And the exhaustion. “I was just constantly exhausted,” she said. “Every time I woke up, it was just like all my limbs were heavy.” She recalled struggling through a final presentation for her summer internship while feeling lethargic. Though her symptoms only lasted for about four days, “when they were there, they were pretty bad.”

What the sophomore calls “the echo chamber” compounded her experience with COVID-19. Each time she encountered media about the pandemic — an article or podcast sent to her by a friend, for example — “it definitely hit harder.” 

“You were just constantly shoved with news and media [about the virus],” she said, “and here you are not able to do anything but sit at home and deal with it.”

The student on leave was similarly fatigued, and also experienced a dry cough and another common symptom of the virus: complete loss of taste and smell. 

“It’s honestly unlike anything,” he said. “It was literally like I could’ve eaten a jalapeño pepper and wouldn’t have tasted anything.” He explained that he hadn’t realized how severe his loss of sensation was until, one morning, his senses came back.

“I just woke up in the morning, and I forgot I could smell someone in my kitchen cooking breakfast from my room,” he said.

His symptoms, however, were mild in comparison to those of his younger brother, the only other member of his family who contracted the virus. His brother was bedridden with a fever of 104°F for a week, with fatigue so severe he could not walk without support.

For this student, watching his brother become so ill was “a sobering experience.”

“When you don’t know anyone who was personally so sick,” he said, “it’s very easy to ignore it.” After his brother fell ill, the student realized that although young adults are at a lower risk of serious complications from COVID-19, that doesn’t mean they are invincible.

“It’s very easy to believe that you’re young and healthy and you’re going to be that way forever,” he said. But he could be the exception to the rule: “I can be the person that someone reads about … the university student that got really really sick.”

The sophomore, too, remains wary, even though she tested positive for coronavirus antibodies. She fears that she could catch COVID again, and that “it could actually be worse the second time around.” 

Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, a World Health Organization scientist, said there have only been “a couple dozen cases of reinfection reported so far,” out of over 38 million cases worldwide. But for one man in the United States, his second case was severe and required hospitalization. 

The gap year student, who also tested positive for antibodies, said that he is still very cautious, months after he contracted the disease.

“It hit me the other day,” he said, “ that I could definitely get it again.”

Rosenberg has not sought an antibody test. She said the results would not affect her behavior.

“If I have antibodies, great; if I don’t, whatever,” she said. “Whether or not I’m immune, I’m not going to behave any differently.”

If anything, surviving COVID-19 heightened the students’ fear of the coronavirus. “The uncertainty that is the fusion of politics and public health makes me scared,” Rosenberg said. The sophomore echoed her: “I’m more concerned about the nation now.”

All three students are healthy and have recovered completely from COVID-19. On the other side of the virus, the students have messages for their peers, their communities, and the United States. 

“All I can really hope for is that people take it more seriously across the nation,” the sophomore said. 

“People, don’t be stupid,” Rosenberg said. “Think about your grandparents, or yourself, if you’re selfish and don’t care about your grandparents. Wear a mask. If you see something, say something.”

But even if you do “everything right,” the sophomore warns, “sometimes, things will still go wrong.”

In the words of the gap year student: “It has to be someone. There’s no guaranteeing that someone’s not you.”

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