Engineering and College sophomore Julia Lottman tested positive for COVID-19 the first week she returned from her spring break trip to Barcelona, Spain in March 2020. After feeling normal for a couple days, she soon developed fatigue and severe body aches, leading to a two-week quarantine in her basement.
Lottman later lost her sense of taste and smell, before they had been officially declared as effects of the virus. She did not show the known symptoms of coughing or trouble breathing at the time.
Months later while on a hike, Lottman realized she developed post-COVID-19 syndrome, which presents persistent virus-related symptoms in patients even after they recover from the illness, and said she began to have more difficulty breathing and many chest pains that she never experienced during her isolation period.
“I was diagnosed with some exercise-induced asthma, so now I have to use an inhaler, which is not fun," Lottman said, about the aftermath of contracting the virus months ago.
Now, as Penn embraces thousands more students on campus, in an attempt to return to a more normal college experience against the backdrop of a deadly pandemic, some of those who caught the virus last year continue living a life marred by its debilitating effects.
Students who tested positive for COVID-19 in the last year experienced a range of symptoms, from a mild cough, to loss of smell, to long-term decreased lung capacity. And while some are glad they caught the virus early on, others urge students who are coming to campus for the spring semester to be wary.
Like Lottman, College first-year Rebecca Kanter contracted the virus early last year, in late January before the virus was widely known to have hit the United States and Europe.
“I had breathing issues, like I couldn't walk a few blocks without getting winded or walk up the stairs,” Kanter said, adding she also experienced severe nausea, as well as brain fog symptoms like memory loss and intense fatigue for a few weeks. “There were no resources for [COVID-19] in the states at that point, and [doctors] thought I was going crazy; so did my dad.”
By December 2020, Kanter said she had been diagnosed with decreased lung capacity and was visiting a local clinic, which coordinates care for COVID-19 patients, while completing her first online semester at Penn. COVID-19 can cause a variety of short- and long-term lung complications, ranging from pneumonia to acute respiratory distress syndrome in more severe cases.
“I can't walk a few blocks, I can't walk like a mile without needing an inhaler," Kanter said.
Despite Penn’s decision to continue remote learning for the fall semester, at least 3,000 students returned to campus housing, with many additional upperclassmen living off campus. More than 1,000 members of the Penn community — including undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, and staff — tested positive for COVID-19 between Aug. 1 and the end of December 2020.
Some students, like College junior Jenna Wyman and College first year Victoria Rosa, observed that many students' reactions to news of their peers testing positive for COVID-19 had become more lax with the assumption that young people do not experience any severe symptoms.
“During the quarantine period in the spring, everyone was so freaked out about it and not seeing anyone, but it's even worse now and people don't seem to care anymore," Rosa said.
Wyman tested positive two days after celebrating her birthday outdoors in mid-August with a group of eight friends, each whom had worn masks and had said they tested negative. One of the friends who Wyman celebrated with received a positive test result two days after the gathering.
Wyman experienced a low-grade fever, severe but short-term congestion, and extreme fatigue. A few days into her isolation, she began to lose her sense of taste and smell which she said lasted until her isolation period was over.
She added that Student Health Services called her nearly every other day to check in on her symptoms and remind her of the end of her isolation date.
Although Wyman described her physical symptoms as “nothing too serious,” she experienced an unexpected side effect of contracting the virus as she quarantined for 10 days in her apartment in The Radian.
“Emotionally, at first, you try to find humor in this even though it's a terrible thing, like you try your best to make the best of it. And so, at first it was more of like a nervous laugh,” Wyman said. “And then when I really had to close my door and be alone, I started to panic because there's so much that, at least I didn't know about [COVID-19] and that my parents didn't know.”
Rosa, who believes she caught the virus from another student in a sorority she was trying to rush in late October, experienced similar symptoms to Wyman and struggled with the solitude of isolation.
“It took a toll physically too, just being still all the time, like not moving,” Rosa said. “I just was uncomfortable all the time and then that was making me super frustrated, and it made me kind of go crazy. Like I wanted to get out just because my body couldn't take being kept in one place for that long.”
Rosa added that her neighbors in The Chestnut at 3720 Chestnut St, a hub for many first years living off campus in the fall semester, tested positive around the same time.
College first-year Navraj Singh, a Daily Pennsylvanian staffer, said he was one of the first students living in Rodin College House last fall that he knew tested positive for COVID-19. While he believes he had the virus in March while still at home in Virginia, he only tested positive for it in early November while at Penn. He said doctors ran multiple tests on him in March but had refused to run a COVID-19 test on him at the time, as he did not display all of the three known symptoms of the virus at the time: a cough, shortness of breath, and a fever.
Though the University places COVID-19-positive students living in on-campus housing into Sansom Place East to quarantine, Penn's Student Health Service let Singh's parents pick him up after testing positive to quarantine in the basement of his home. He experienced fatigue, chills, and body aches, and unlike in March, he also lost his sense of smell for nearly two weeks.
The majority of students Singh met living in Rodin, he said, were first-generation, low-income students or had another circumstance that compelled them to apply for on-campus housing. Because his parents are essential workers, Singh said Penn's social distancing guidelines, free testing, and convenient access to delivery meals provided him with a safer environment than he otherwise would have had at home.
For Wharton sophomore Derek Nhieu, who tested positive for COVID-19 one week before Thanksgiving break, the mental and emotional toll of the illness was not as significant because he used technology and social media to stay in contact with friends and family. Like many other students, he could only speculate as to how, where, or from whom he got the virus, adding that he and his suitemates had avoided going out to gatherings the entire semester.
“Regardless of however safe you are, like obviously I was very safe and cautious, you just never know," he said. "All it takes is one person, who neither of you guys know you have it, and boom you have it."
Nhieu said he developed a cough, chills, body aches, extreme fatigue, fever, and temporary loss of taste. While Nhieu considered his symptoms to be mild, he called on Penn students to avoid marginalizing the severity of the virus, noting that one of his family members died of COVID-19 while he was sick.
“I don't want people to think that just because you got it and you recovered from it, it’s fine," he said. "It's still a very dangerous virus and illness that can kill people and it has been killing people, and you can't use your own personal experience necessarily to justify that it's not so bad after all."
In late October, Engineering sophomore Henrique Lorente, an international student from Brazil, also tested positive while living on campus. Lorente said he has no regrets with his choice to live on campus, adding that he is "very happy" he already contracted the virus so that he can go back home to Brazil for winter break without much worry about infecting his parents.
“I think especially young people, we worry more about giving it to our parents than actually what it's gonna do to us, especially if you're lucky enough to not have any underlying health issues," he said. "So for a lot of people, and myself included, we all felt pretty good about getting it now.”
Lorente said he experienced a mild fever, fatigue, as well as loss of taste and smell which returned within two to three weeks.
With thousands of first years on campus for the first time since the onset of the pandemic, those who have navigated life on or near campus while battling COVID-19 urged other students to follow safety precautions in the spring.
Rosa said that while conquering COVID-19 has mitigated worry about becoming infected in the near future, she is still wary of the virus and calls on other students to stay safe even if they have already had COVID-19. A recent study published in Science shows that immunity to the virus can last for at least eight months for those who recover from COVID-19, but experts caution that there is still much unknown about immunity and SARS-CoV-2 because it is such a new coronavirus.
Kanter agreed, adding that any young person has the possibility of experiencing severe symptoms of the virus.
“There are hidden things that are scarier than you think about [COVID-19] that just make it intensely not the flu,” she said. “And it won't go away after two weeks even if you're a teen, like me.”
Lottman urged students on campus this semester to regularly utilize campus testing facilities, adding that people should be cautious of long-term symptoms caused by the virus that can be much worse than the initial illness.
“There are people who really still believe it's just the flu because it doesn't affect everyone to the point they're on a ventilator," Lottman said. "I would like my normal lungs back.”