Keeping student dorms safe from COVID-19 — the Hong Kong experience
By Ying Chan, Master, Shun Hing College, The University of Hong Kong
18 November 2020
The message arrived at my cellphone at 3:10 pm: a student in the residential college I oversee has been sent by the university clinic to take a coronavirus test, as one of her friends was in close contact with someone who had been tested positive. Our student also had a slight cough and a running nose, symptoms of COVID-19.
The message set off all the alarm bells.
Immediately, my team of residential tutors sprung into action. The student was moved to a room for students with special needs, equipped with a private toilet, while all 11 students on her floor were told to stay inside their rooms till further notice. I sent a message to all residents at the college to inform them of the suspected contact case and the measures that we were implementing. Already, rumours were buzzing in social media groups. Anxiety was building up. I need to get the correct information out quickly to manage the mini-crisis. In public health matters, rapid and trustworthy communications are vital.
That was back in April when the affected students and others on her floor were placed under lockdown for three days. They were set “free” when the test result came back negative. The lockdown was not required since they were not close contacts. Still, we swiftly responded out of an abundance of caution.
With stringent infectious control regulations in place, Shun Hing College and the other 16 student residences at HKU had remained open since the onset of COVID-19 in January. Unlike some overseas universities, HKU never shut down the student dorms. Not one student has been forced to vacate. Of the more than 6,000 residents at 17 university student residences, only one positive case was reported.
Eugenie Leung, who served as Dean of Students through the first eight months of the pandemic, credited the smooth running of the dorms to the university’s quick switch to the hybrid mode of teaching, hotel quarantine for returning students, universal masking, and Hong Kong’s SARS experience.
The collaborative spirit among students also helped. “We can contain the spread in the dorm case with immediate actions. Everyone is willing to stay inside,” she said.
At my college, we went beyond government and university regulations. In addition to universal masking and social distancing, we also banned visitors. For a few weeks when COVID-19 was raging, inter-floor visits were not allowed. A bored student wrote me a few long messages pleading for an exception so that she could share dinners with her boyfriend in the pantry. I felt for her but had to reject the request.
In September, the college welcomed returning and new students. It was a low key start of the academic year, without the heart-warming welcome parties or elegant high-table dinners of past years. The college was kept on high alert, bracing for another wave of COVID-19.
It helps that in Hong Kong, all positive cases for COVID are admitted to public hospitals for further tests and needed treatment at government expense. In the only case when a dorm resident was tested positive, he was taken to the hospital by ambulance. Other residents remained in their rooms until the next day, when the government dispatched three mini-coaches to pick up
19 students who had had close contacts with him. The 19 were taken to public quarantine centres for 14 days of medical monitoring. Others at the dorm were given tests by a private agency, with the university footing the bill. The student recovered while the others survived the lockdown. There was no fuss or panic.
At Shun Hing College, which houses 460 graduate and undergraduate students, we were lucky to have only one close encounter with the coronavirus. Having lived through the SARS epidemic in 2003, which took away 286 lives, Hong Kongers got into a high alert mode in early January, when we heard about the mysterious infectious disease in Wuhan. Our college started distributing free surgical masks to residents on
13 January, seven days before Beijing confirmed that the novel virus could be transmitted from human to human.
Our students were required to wear them whenever they were outside their rooms, and to practice maximum social distancing. Common rooms were shut down since the start of the pandemic. Parties and social events were put on hold. Alcohol was banned as a standing practice. People entering the complex were checked for their body temperature.
Despite the stringent rules, students took the inconveniences in stride. They appreciated the collective effort to keep our living quarters safe. Many were ready to help. During the three-day floor lockdown, tutors and student volunteers circulated menus, took orders, and delivered meals to the students three times a day. We also provided bottled water.
As we get more confident in managing the epidemic, we are restarting activities at the college this semester. Meanwhile, we have remained vigilant in observing hygiene rules, mask-on, social distancing, and no food or drinks during activities. For getting to know each other, we organised outdoor activities such as hiking, as well as community services such as beach-cleaning, and evening runs to collect surplus bread for the needy.
A fourth wave may hit soon, but we cannot surrender to COVID-19 fatigue. We need to double our efforts to keep the college a safe and healthy place, a home away from home for students.