The Perfect Enemy | Being sick at Yale, but not with COVID
September 25, 2022
Read Time:6 Minute

Karen Lin, Senior Photographer

Felice Dong ’25 came down with a bad cough and fever earlier this month.

But she didn’t test positive for COVID-19. As a result, Dong said she had to attend class in person despite falling ill — otherwise, there was no other way to absorb the material other than to “read the textbook.”

“I feel like you kind of just have to push through it, because you’re expected to do the work anyway,” Dong said.

Students who do test positive, meanwhile, are expected to miss classes and extracurriculars, and are subject to a quarantine policy, making them more likely to receive dean’s extensions.

As the school year begins, students are voicing concerns about the University’s sickness policies.

Christine Chen, who serves as chief of Student Health, noted that Yale Health generally sees higher cases of respiratory illness every fall. Last September, Yale Health saw an unprecedented number of visits and calls by students.

Yet, with crowded dining halls, a lack of virtual class options and a wave of incoming first years, accommodations for students who are sick are worrying many who point out a gap between resources for those who test positive for COVID-19 and those who do not.

“[There’s] this perception that the only sickness that Yale should care about is COVID-19,” said Viktor Kagan ’24, who is a senator for the Yale College Council.

The News spoke to five students who reported flu-like symptoms, but did not test positive for COVID-19, about their experiences with classes and Yale Health as they transitioned into the fall semester. 

Going to classes

Dong reported that she was ineligible for a dean’s extension, forcing her to attend class with a severe cough.

“Sometimes you’ll get a really nice professor who understands and will give you an extension, but I know that for most instances where I’m sick, but not bedridden sick, I can’t even get a dean’s extension. So it’s kind of like you have to suck it up and do it anyway in order to not fall behind.”

Yale College policy describes an “incapacitating illness or incapacitating condition of any kind” as a potential instance for the issuance of a dean’s extension. Extensions do not apply to class absences for less severe illnesses, however.

Students also described classes as unaccommodating for those who claimed to be sick.

Kagan said that professors do not always understand the public health implications of wanting to miss class and avoid spreading their illness. He added that missing class actually creates more difficulty for a student than attending would. 

“[If] you’re going … to miss a lecture, and you will have to rely on other people’s notes rather than being able to watch a recording of that lecture,” he said, “that’s a huge problem.”

Olivia Bell ’25, who had a fever and sore throat, said that while reading the textbook and having a friend explain concepts to her was a sufficient alternative to attending class, she still “would have preferred recorded lectures.” 

One of her courses, “Queer Writing Before Stonewall,” is one such class which does not offer recorded lectures. Though the course does include a Zoom option for watching lectures live, there is no way for a student to view them asynchronously once they are feeling better.

Michael Warner, who serves as professor of Bell’s “Queer Writing” class, wrote in an email to the News that he sets up the Zoom at the request of any student who falls ill for any reason. 

Veronica Zimmer ’25, who was sick with pneumonia, maintained perfect attendance during her illness. She said that she “really powered through” each day, because “there was such an emphasis on [going] to class.” 

Additionally, she told the News that when she had COVID-19 in a previous semester, she was instructed not to go to class at all.

“There’s not much of a space to be sick at Yale,” Zimmer said. “It just seems like everything here moves really fast, academic-wise, extracurricular-wise, social-life-wise … it’s hard to find time to just recover.”

Joseph Elsayyid ’26 mentioned that the “pressure” to attend courses in person manifested behind a fear of falling behind. He added that a lack of virtual recording options served to the “detriment” of those who did not feel comfortable attending events in person. 

Yale Health recommends that students do not return to classes and extracurriculars until they feel better, Chen told the News in an email.

Going to the doctor

Chen described Student Health’s treatment advice for respiratory viruses as “supportive” — with a reliance on rest, fluids and over-the-counter medicines such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen for symptoms.

However, students expressed reluctance to contact Yale Health.

Dong mentioned that she had a poor experience with the system last school year, playing a game of “phone tag” where she would receive a call at an inconvenient time, such as during class, and would call back later only to receive no answer. 

This back-and-forth continued for a while until she was finally reached by Yale Health — by which point, her case was quickly dismissed. She was told to purchase cough suppressant on her own, and that her case was not “severe enough” to necessitate a visit. 

“You have to really, really advocate for yourself in order to be seen at all,” Dong said. “And I don’t know, when I’m sick, I just don’t have the energy to do that.”

When she grew ill again last week, she did not contact Yale Health.

With regard to communication with Yale Health, Chen advised “to pick up the phone” when a student nurse calls “so that discussion is not delayed.”

Zimmer, who was sick last year with a cold-like fever, mentioned that she felt “gaslit” by Yale Health when she had experienced symptoms.

“They were telling me that it’s just that I’m a college student and I’m overextending myself,” Zimmer said.

Zimmer said that she had gone to Yale Health multiple times over the course of the semester. She saw a different doctor each time, leaving her feeling like “each individual person didn’t get a full grasp of what was going on.” 

After being sick for five months — during which she was given cough drops and allergy medicine before she finally convinced Yale Health to give her a chest X-ray — Zimmer was finally diagnosed with pneumonia.

Zimmer added that the Yale Health system is her only insurance plan, so she “wouldn’t have any other option” for receiving care.

Some students who are able to pursue other care options choose to do so.

When Kagan was sick last October, he did not go to Yale Health. Instead, he scheduled an appointment with a doctor at home. He believed he would receive better care and treatment since they know his medical records. 

Kagan said that based on the experiences he heard others recount, he was worried he would not receive sufficient health care with Yale’s services.

“[My doctor] know[s] me, and I think they’ll take me a lot more seriously than my friends were taken at Yale Health,” Kagan said.

Elsayyid, who is a first-year student, noted that “not fully understanding” which resources are available can disincentivize new students from reaching out to Yale Health. 

Chen told the News that Student Health is “always happy” to assist students who have questions and concerns, over the phone or through MyChart. 

Student Health can be contacted at (203) 432-0312.

WILLIAM PORAYOUW <!– william.porayouw@yale.edu –>

William Porayouw covers international affairs at Yale and serves on the YDN business team. Originally from Southern California, he is a first-year in Davenport College majoring in ethics, politics and economics.