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Students walk by UGA's Miller Learning Center on the school's first day of class, Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020 in Athens, Georgia. Campus was quieter than previous first days, as many students attended class online rather than in person. (Photo/Taylor Gerlach; @taylormckenzie_photo)

COVID-19 infection rates are rising across the country as the holiday season approaches. Before going home or visiting family, students should consider potential risk factors of traveling during a pandemic. 

Comparing positivity rates 

Out of state students should check the positivity rates of their home states and counties. They can use Georgia and Athens as a reference point.

Georgia’s seven-day positivity rate currently sits at 7.8%.  

Familial risk factors 

Certain factors increase individual risk of severe illness upon contracting the coronavirus. These include a wide range of pre-existing conditions such as cancers, heart conditions, obesity and age. 

Before traveling home, students should consider the prevalence of these factors among their family and what can be done to minimize risk including getting tested before returning home, wearing a mask while traveling and for the first few days back and social distancing. 

Getting tested and trusting the results 

When relying on test results to determine the safety of visiting family, consider the efficacy of the test and the results. 

The American Association of Medical Colleges website specifies two different types of coronavirus tests: polymerase chain reaction tests and antigen tests. 

PCR tests are highly sensitive and search for the virus’ genetic material. The AAMC considers it to be accurate in detecting active infection. 

Antigen tests look instead for virus proteins. These tests are cheaper, provide faster results than PCR tests and are often utilized by rapid testing sites. The AAMC warns that antigen tests, while faster than PCR tests, are less accurate. The AAMC website claims the false negativity rating of antigen tests could be as high as 50%.  

According to a UGA Today article from Sep. 8, UGA uses PCR tests for surveillance testing. Surveillance testing will be available until Tuesday at 5 p.m.

In an ArchNews email from Nov. 4, University Health Center Executive Director Garth Russo encouraged students to use an abundance of caution when preparing to reunite with family. His recommendations include getting a flu shot, two-weeks of self-quarantine or at least self-quarantining after getting tested and awaiting results. 

Russo also encouraged students to take extra precautions after returning home. 

“Your first 14 days at home are very important. Consider self-quarantine: i.e., use a separate bathroom if possible; do not share utensils, glasses or plates; and, as hard as it may seem, avoid hugging and kissing parents, grandparents and other relatives and friends, especially those who may have predisposing conditions,” Russo said. 

Bottom line 

Students should consider all factors when deciding whether to return home over the break during the pandemic. All precautions should be taken to minimize risk to vulnerable populations. Transmission is less likely in smaller groups while wearing masks and staying outdoors.