Covid-19 symptoms or allergies?

By Siobhán Mitchell

Allergy season is upon us which means that sore throats, stuffy noses, and general feelings of yuckiness are all around campus. Granville is no stranger to the intense allergy season that is Ohio spring, and with a student body that consists of mostly out-of-state students, it’s no surprise that campus may be hit hard with sinus problems right about…now.

In pre-Covid times, 127 regulars Tim Dowling and Paul Djupe examined patterns of student illness across campus by measuring the proportion of students in residence halls who reported being sick enough to force them to miss a class that semester. When the survey was distributed in March 2019 (about half way through the semester) more than half the respondents had to miss class due to illness. What that may mean for campus in current times is difficult to discern with the enactment of social distancing, masks, symptom checks, and vaccines.

On a global scale, these same habits to reduce Covid transmission have correlated with a drastic decrease in the number of other viral infections and hospitalizations during the annual flu season. Typically hitting during the months of October-March, the flu has been nearly nonexistent this winter (for the US and Europe). In parts of the Southern Hemisphere, the flu was nearly wiped out – credited to strict lockdown measures as well as the decrease in travel from the Northern Hemisphere during the end of the northern flu season. A world without the flu seems pretty nice and no longer just a fantasy.

Scaling it down to our campus, Denison students are no stranger to infections that spread quickly across quads like the common cold, the flu, and strep throat (a contagious bacterial-not viral-infection). Paralleling the national effort to reduce Covid-19 transmission Denison implemented policies that logically would reduce other contagious diseases, too.

Perhaps the most tedious policy is the daily symptom check which allows access to dining halls, Mitchell or Whisler in the form of a green badge rewarding a perfect score. Students are asked yes/no questions on the status of their physical well-being and are responsible for making the decision if their unexplained sore throat is due to allergies or something else and if their “excessive fatigue” is them not sleeping enough or something more dangerous. Most questions state “not due to seasonal allergies” or “not due to a chronic condition” after the symptom to distinguish Covid danger from other illness.

In fear of being put in quarantine for a few days until a Covid-19 test comes back negative, some students are hesitant to be entirely truthful on the daily questionnaire. 127 asked students how many times they were untruthful on the daily symptom survey last semester. Slightly less than half of respondents indicated that they had lied at least once about their symptoms and seniors (who most commonly don’t have to enter dining halls on a regular basis) failed to report symptoms more than other classes on campus. The closest food to seniors, Silvy’s, does not make students show badges since it’s more of a grab and go type situation instead of being unmasked with other students for an extended period.

Although we don’t know how many of these unreported symptoms were severe enough to miss class, it showed that students did have some sick days whether attributed to a different viral infection or just Ohio allergies. Students’ bodies were ill, but they didn’t always report it. The good news is that it seems unlikely it was Covid because of the extremely low number of confirmed cases on campus last semester.

If allergies are the culprit it may be hitting its annual high right now as campus Covid numbers creep higher as well. In recent days the allergy index has been above 9.5 (out of 12) on a ranking of pollen levels in the air, leading to more stuffy noses and sore throats all around campus. In a time where positive tests are all too common, how can students distinguish a Covid cough from an allergy one?

As for the future of masks and social distancing, the majority of students at the moment adhere to these guidelines reporting to follow the rules 84% of the time and their friends 78% of the time. Although mask fatigue is real, students report that they are generally staying on track, but it is impossible to predict the attitude toward masks when Covid-19 is removed from the picture. A change in approach to mask wearing could be generally beneficial as seen in contexts where it’s considered basic etiquette to wear a mask when sick to protect others from infection or protect oneself from allergens. When thinking of the potential germs on a college campus, continued use of masks in the classroom may not be an entirely bad idea.

This being said, there is hope for creating a less sick campus in the future. As stated above, flu infections across the nation have dipped to an unprecedented low, so what does that mean for our campus? Masks are effective, but experts support that vaccines could be the best offensive attack in our fight against the flu. Last fall, Denison enacted a flu vaccination requirement, but it is unclear if this will become an annual mandate. At one point in time (like January 2020 – not that long ago), the flu was part of life and death as hundreds of thousands died as a result of it every year, but Covid may give a unique opportunity to create a healthier, less flu-invested society.

So as the Covid vaccine roll-out gains speed we must ask ourselves, what have we learned and how are we going to continue to do better in the future?

Siobhán Mitchell is a senior Spanish major who is trying to figure out what to do with her life. Don’t ask her what she plans on doing next year; she doesn’t even know what she’s gonna eat for dinner today. If you have any ideas, she is open to suggestions on either.

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