A student guide for COVID-19 safety during the Omicron surge

With many students, professors and staff calling in sick, businesses around Portland closing their doors and misinformation running rampant on social media, understanding how to be a responsible citizen and how to be safe can feel overwhelming. The height of the Omicron variant is beginning to wane, but death tolls continue to rise


Students aren’t the only ones who feel overwhelmed. According to a professional over at Student Health and Resource Center (SHAC), COVID-19 testing at the health center is currently only available to students who are showing signs of symptoms. “Testing is very cramped right now,” they said. 


With Omicron’s significantly higher virality than any over COVID-19 variant seen before, many students are also wondering what the best way to protect themselves and others should be. 


“The booster shot is still your best defense against the virus,” the SHAC staff member said. “It’s also important to wear a good mask.”


Booster clinics are typically available at SHAC on Fridays, with the next booster clinic being Feb 11. Booster shots are usually available where prior COVID-19 vaccines have been administered, and Oregon state’s website provides a consistently updated list of vaccination clinics, including walk-up and drive-through clinics. 


As opposed to typical N95 masks, KN95 masks are one of the safest options for use because they provide an extra outer coating of polypropylene that helps to protect the wearer against small particles. Masks with exhalation valves, or vents, can allow for too many large particles to get through and contaminate the wearer so they are not recommended for use. Face shields also do not prevent transmission as effectively because particles can still be transmitted through the sides of the covering. 


Cloth masks alone do not have the same level of protection as medical grade masks because they are not built to defend against smaller aerosol particles that could slip through the lining of the fabric. The most recent CDC guidance accepts cloth masks that are both multilayered and tightly woven, with a snug fit and adjustable nose bridge. However, it’s still recommended to wear a disposable mask underneath a cloth mask. This option helps to reserve N95 masks for healthcare workers. 


Cloth masks were a reasonable alternative when medical grade masks were unavailable, but over the past two years, proper mask equipment has become much more accessible. On Jan. 19, 2022, the Biden administration announced it will give out 400 million free N95 masks through pharmacies and community health centers. This could be a huge help for individuals who want to remain safe without being able to afford a large amount of disposable masks.


For students who are concerned if they may have been exposed to COVID-19, but may not have symptoms, there are still options. Covidtests.gov, released Jan. 18, allows for every household in the U.S. to order four free at-home COVID-19 tests. These tests will arrive in 7-12 business days. Other at-home COVID-19 tests are still available for purchase at local pharmacies—if the concern is more pressing—but can cost up to $40.


SHAC’s COVID-19 resources page is one of the most essential websites for PSU students. The site provides common questions, reporting forms for students exposed to COVID-19 and other helpful community resources for the Portland area. If students have further questions, it’s advised to email them to [email protected].

Ryan McConnell/Portland State Vanguard