When Kirsten Zelonka gets sick, it feels like a roller coaster. All she can do is try to hold on, knuckles white and clutching the safety bar.
The 20-year-old UF chemistry senior and type I diabetic relates the fluctuations in her blood sugar levels to the twists and turns of the tracks. First, her levels get really high. When her blood sugar is high for an extended period of time, her head feels cloudy, and she can’t focus. No matter how much insulin she takes, she’s stuck at the top, she said, and sometimes she takes too much insulin to get her levels back down.
“And then a low blood sugar is like the worst,” Zelonka said. “That’s when you’re like sweating and shaking, and you get confused.”
Maintaining normal blood sugar levels when she gets sick takes a lot of effort, and Zelonka said she thinks it’d be even harder if she were diagnosed with COVID-19. One of the symptoms is fatigue, and she worries that she could fall asleep while her blood sugar drops, and no one would be around to check on her.
As UF considers its reopening plans for the Fall, students with medical conditions say they are recognizing the potential dangers of going back to campus.
“I definitely don’t think it’s safe for us all to go back,” she said.
Although UF has already required the use of masks inside buildings and has rolled out a Screen, Test, and Protect program to identify and track potential cases, Zelonka said she finds it hard to trust that everyone will social distance correctly.
Individuals considered to be “high-risk” are more likely to become severely ill if they were to contract the virus. This includes older adults and people with underlying medical conditions, like diabetes, heart disease and more, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
UF’s reopening plan states the university’s Office of ADA Compliance, which works to create an accessible environment for students and staff with disabilities, will work to accommodate at-risk employees, students and visitors.
UF spokesperson Steve Orlando said in an email that guidance for high-risk individuals will be available on UF’s coronavirus response website on the reopening page.
Rafae Jamal, a 19-year-old UF computer engineering sophomore, will look to this guidance. Jamal has sickle cell thalassemia, which causes his red blood cells to be shaped like hooks instead of circles, he said. Because of this, his blood cells carry less oxygen than the average person’s.
Jamal already has a hard time getting oxygenated blood to the rest of his body, and having his lungs compromised by COVID-19 would not be good, he said. He’s had pneumonia before, and each time he was sick for one or two months.
When he saw his new schedule Friday morning after UF announced its official reopening plan, Jamal said he was partly relieved. His Fall classes are mostly online, with only one in-person lab. Still, he said he’s sympathetic to people who want to take in-person classes—he’s one of them. He enjoys the learning environment and the constant mingling with new people that he thinks is entirely unique to a college setting.
Despite missing his friends and wanting to return to a normal college experience, Jamal is cautioned by the recent surge of positive COVID-19 cases in the county and state. It’s safer to have the majority of classes online, he thinks. Alachua County reported an additional 65 positive COVID-19 cases Saturday, tallying 2,043 cases and 12 deaths total.
“If it came down to having one semester of fun, or having a lifetime of fun, I will take the lifetime,” he said.
Personal responsibility, he said, is going to be very important in staying safe throughout the Fall. Students will have to be diligent in maintaining social distancing even when they’re out of UF’s jurisdiction. He added that he’s worried about a spike in cases when everyone comes back that could force the university to close again.
“I think that if Jesus Christ descended today, even he couldn’t stop people from going to Mid,” he said.
Jessica Shaechter, a 19-year-old economics and telecommunications junior, is in a similar situation. As another type I diabetic, she said she's also considered how COVID-19 might be more dangerous to her than many of her classmates. However, as an international student from Costa Rica, she is now required to take an in-person class to stay in the United States, following an announcement from ICE on Monday.
“I don’t feel like they’re even taking into consideration that I’m an international student, but I’m also a student that has a high risk of having a complicated case,” she said. “I cannot choose, you know. It is what it is.”
Shaechter thinks the best answer for her is hybrid classes, which combine an online component with face-to-face instruction, so she can choose to avoid contact with other students. The junior said she thinks constantly about all the ways she could get the virus. With four roommates and a campus as large as UF’s, she said the possibilities are seemingly endless.
“When you’re higher risk, you just know that the possibilities of getting it,” she said. “Everything could be so much worse for us.”
Schaechter said she feels like UF has been pushing to reopen since the beginning, and isn’t sure they’re prioritizing student health because she thinks it’s safer to keep students entirely off campus. She understands a lot of factors are at play, however, especially as an international student.
“I know that we think nothing’s gonna happen to us, but even if someone has good health, they can also get the virus,” she said. “It’s important that they’re taking care of themselves, and they’re taking care of others."