WHEN COVID HITS HOME: 'It's real. ... It's scary:' Susquehanna University freshman infected during late-semester outbreak

Robert Inglis/The Daily Item Susquehanna University student Hunter Horne had tested positive for COVID-19 and had to quarantine earlier in the semester.

When he tested positive for COVID-19 as part of the late-semester outbreak at Susquehanna University, Hunter Horne was only 15 miles from home. It felt like a million.

He was separated from his classmates and faculty, even after returning to campus following a quick quarantine in a nearby hotel. His parents, who live in Rush Township between Danville and Sunbury, couldn't visit him, just phone calls or a quick text.

Horne knows he was one of the lucky ones. He was never hospitalized, his symptoms rivaled the flu or a bad cold. Like many, he lost his sense of taste and smell.

"It's real. Take precautions and don't be stupid," he said. "It's scary to have it. It's different for everyone."

Horne, a freshman at SU and recent Danville High graduate, was one of about four dozen SU students to test positive in the fall. He was quarantined in a local hotel for a day before returning to campus after testing positive. He was temporarily housed in an isolation dormitory university officials had set up for just such an outbreak.

As far as Horne knows, no one has determined exactly how the virus hit campus late; maybe it was Halloween, maybe students returning home to vote, he said. The campus community had done well in its return, far better than other universities around the nation. A staggered return to campus — freshmen came in first, followed by seniors two weeks later, then sophomores and juniors two weeks after that — helped. All students needed to test negative before returning to campus.

There was also buy-in across campus to strictly following protocols along with a significant investment by the university. The late-semester spike was discovered through wastewater testing instituted this fall, forecasting positive cases at Smith Hall. Ultimately, seven residence halls were put under testing protocol but all students were tested.

Horne lived in Smith.

Symptoms set in

Horne said he woke up Monday, Nov. 9, and didn't feel well. Bad headache, sore throat, running nose.

"I knew those were three symptoms," he said.

At that point, Susquehanna had just 14 total cases despite students being on campus for nearly three months. None of the cases were active. Within a week there were 47 active cases, including Horne.

Horne said he was moved off-campus to a hotel after awaiting the results of his test taken on the ninth. His roommate never got the novel coronavirus, Horne said.

Horne got his positive results and was moved back into SU's isolation dorm the next day.

"It felt like a really bad cold," he said. "I was very sore and very tired all the time. My joints were sore and eventually I lost my sense of taste and smell."

The dorm designed to isolate students from the rest of the campus community, did just that. In more ways than one.

"My mom called all the time, she was so stressed out," Hunter said from his home last week, where he is finishing his semester remotely ahead of this week's finals. "If she called and I was asleep and I didn't answer, she would call like 12 times in a row until I answered."

"I was worried all the time," his mother Rachel said after the positive test. "Hunter will say I called too much."

"I was glad I wasn't three hours from home," Hunter said.

Rachel said she and her husband, Brad, were a bit apprehensive about sending their son to college amid the pandemic. Fortunately, he was close to home and the plans SU put into place put them all at ease.

Still, when she got the call her son was positive, Rachel Horne was a bit surprised,

"I was worried that if something did happen he would be there all by himself and I wouldn't be able to help," she said. "When he called and said he was sick, I honestly didn't think it was COVID. But when I heard it was positive, I really started to worry."

Plans in place

Both mother and son said they had faith in the university's protocols and the school delivered.

She said she was contacted the morning her son tested positive and the process parents and students were told would happen was put into motion.

"Everything they had laid out, if they tested to go to a hotel, then to the isolation dorm. It was exactly like they told us it would be," she said.

Hunter said a nurse from Susquehanna called every day to check on him. He was in the isolation dorm until half-way through the following week, about nine days, before he was sent home a few days ahead of the rest of the students. The dean of students also checked in regularly he said and a Geisinger nurse on campus also called.

"We only had a phone number to contact him, but the nurse gave us a call and told us to call if we needed anything," Rachel said. "I called a few times."

After more than a week in isolation, Hunter Horne went home. He and his parents were assured he was no longer contagious.

Be careful

Once in a while Horne's joints are still a little sore. He said he has regained some of his taste and smell, but not all of it.

He knows he can test positive for up to three months. He has already taken five or six tests — "every single time it was the nose test, way up there," he said — and isn't in the mood for any more.

Still unsure how he got it, Horne and his mother sounded a warning call.

"It had gone so well," Rachel Horne said. "It didn't get to where it was at other universities. It happened so fast."

"I was careful the entire time," Hunter Horne said. "It was so far away. Like a lot of people, I thought it was never going to happen. But everybody was really freaking out, really scared. We had 14 for two months and then we had 30 or 40 in two days."

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