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Why is the student body so sick? Here’s what’s going around and how to stay safe

Sit in any crowded lecture hall for more than a couple minutes and the cacophony of coughs and sneezes will compete with even the professor’s microphone. Why is the student body so sick, and what can be done about it?

According to Director of Student Health John Vaughn, the main culprit is non-COVID respiratory illness, particularly viral infections. There is no medicine for these bugs; treatment generally involves managing symptoms, and they can often take two to three weeks to run their course through one’s system.

Though this prognosis may sound bleak to a student unable to breathe out of their nose for weeks, this wave of plague is nothing college campuses haven’t seen before. 

Duke Student Health has noted an uptick in these non-COVID respiratory infections in the last few weeks, according to Vaughn. 

“We’re seeing more cases than last year, but that is primarily due to the fact that there are more students on campus this year— nothing that indicates that there are more or worse infections going around campus than in a typical year,” Vaughn wrote in an email. 

Vaughn also addressed the impact of masking on immune systems. Many students spent the past year sequestered with little exposure to the common respiratory viruses, which may be playing a role in the spike. On the flipside, the fact that students and staff are all wearing masks indoors is an added layer of protection.

Hundreds of students have faced challenges in trying to manage the stresses of college life while being consistently under the weather. First-year Amy Fulton began feeling symptoms of respiratory illness “from the minute [she] stepped foot on campus.” At times, these symptoms were so severe that Fulton sought medical attention from urgent care. 

“It’s definitely difficult to balance all my normal classes, clubs, jobs and social life while feeling sick all the time,” Fulton said. “Luckily, my professors have all been very understanding, although the process of getting extensions and missing classes was a bit confusing to navigate at first.”

Students like Fulton seeking medical attention are advised to call the Student Health hotline or arrange an appointment virtually through MyChart, although the latter has been suspended in line with Duke Health pandemic guidelines. Prior to being treated, Student Health requires students to report any fever or respiratory symptoms and be tested for COVID, even if there is a significant chance their symptoms were caused by something other than COVID. This can cause delays in having illness addressed.

Like Fulton, first-year Gus Gress has been exasperated by the Student Health delays since the beginning of the school year. Though he has been met with understanding from his professors, who were willing to excuse absences and extend deadlines, Gress has encountered difficulties with the University’s healthcare system. 

“I swear, I spend more time on hold than in the doctor’s office,” Gress said. 

As the wave of respiratory illness travels across campus, Vaughn advises that students stay indoors, wash their hands frequently, stay warm and get plenty of rest.

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