Kansas professor’s experience with COVID-19 heightens concern for campus safety

By: - August 16, 2020 7:05 am

Richard Sleezer, a professor at Emporia State University who was infected with COVID-19, questioned whether students returning to campus will take safety precautions seriously. (Submitted)

TOPEKA — Richard Sleezer could only watch the careless attitudes many have taken toward the pandemic for so long before he felt compelled to share his ongoing COVID-19 experience.

In mid-June, after coping with what he described as a “really bad allergy attack,” Sleezer was tested for the virus. He expected to hear good news when he spoke with his physician’s nurse but instead was told he had tested positive.

Sleezer, a physical sciences professor at Emporia State University, immediately quarantined himself from his wife and three children.

“I had worn a mask, washed my hands constantly and, heck, I was even standing 10 feet away from people. I still got it and had to quarantine,” Sleezer said. “It isn’t easy being physically alone through that process, but it did give me a lot of time to think.”

The pandemic has uprooted lives like Sleezer’s in almost every county across Kansas since the virus was first detected in early March. So far, 33,885 people have been infected and 402 have died statewide.

Despite steady case numbers, universities under the Kansas Board of Regents plan to return in force this fall, with varying plans for testing and face-to-face classes.

In the nearly two weeks Sleezer spent in his basement, and the time since, he has found himself contemplating the feasibility of universities reopening safely and questioning the cavalier attitudes he sees many taking toward science amid such a threatening virus.

Sleezer, who wanted to make it clear that he speaks for himself and not the university, understand the threat of the virus. On top of uncontrollable sneezing, runny nose, and extreme fatigue present before his diagnosis, Sleezer found each day brought a new nightmarish experience.

The first night he developed an intense fever and chills. He began coughing frequently — to the point of expelling blood and, for a day, struggled to control his bowel movements. After about a week of symptoms, he developed severe headaches and light sensitivity.

“It was to the point where I had to shut off every light, close every window and just lay down with my eyes closed,” Sleezer said. “I’ve had the flu, strep throat, and plenty of other bad sicknesses. Nothing compared to how miserable I felt during that time.”

The symptoms Sleezer experienced are, for the most part, common, said Dana Hawkinson, medical director of infection prevention and control at The University of Kansas Health System. One symptom reported, a series of red bumps that became cold sores in Sleezer’s mouth, is a bit more uncommon but has been infrequently reported.

“Understanding the virus and its full effects on our body continues to remain an ongoing process,” Hawkinson said. “It is certainly reasonable that the ulcerations may have been a part of the infection, either a direct viral infection or as a part of our immune system’s reaction to the virus. We learn more about the symptoms and manifestations every day.”

That uncertainty may be what concerns Sleezer most. He hasn’t contracted a secondary infection during his recovery as some do, but he was prescribed antibiotics out of caution and carries an inhaler to deal with shortness of breath.

He left his basement two weeks ago, but he still feels weighed down physically and mentally.


Returning to school

Sleezer is back at work now, preparing for the school year and maintaining the same precautions he had before his bout with COVID-19 — wearing a mask, practicing good hygiene and maintaining social distancing.

While he works, his mind fills with concerns for the safety and health of those returning to face-to-face learning environments, himself among them.

He isn’t critical of any universities or their plans, but is worried if someone who took every precaution, like himself, couldn’t avoid the virus, how will a campus full of staff and stir-crazy students avoid widespread illness?

“It seems like we are hanging our hats on this idea that if we wash our hands, disinfect, wear a mask and keep space between us we can still interact with other people and still open up safely,” Sleezer said. “That’s hard to do, especially when you consider it’s a serious change in behavior after six months of abnormality.”

Sleezer remembers his college days, which, he admits, weren’t always filled with the best decisions. Reports of community-wide outbreaks stemming from teenage parties further convince him an issue of some sort is inevitable on campus.

People congregate, Sleezer said. It’s human nature. Even as he answered questions in an interview for this story, he saw two students walk past his car, masks off and well within 6 feet of each other.

“I don’t know there’s a way to fully control that behavior on campus,” said Erin Sorrell, an assistant professor in the department of microbiology and immunology at Georgetown University. “The best way to make students support the guidelines is to involve them in the process. They are numb to the same instructions over and over. Engaging beyond educating.”

Sleezer is keeping his fingers crossed people are on their best behavior, but based on what he’s seen since the onset of the pandemic in March, he isn’t getting his hopes up.


Not science fiction

Sleezer recently went to a regularly scheduled doctor’s appointment. Just to see the doctor, he had to clear several hurdles because his lingering shortness of breath is a symptom of COVID-19.

On his way out, Sleezer shared his frustration over the ordeal and the reckless behavior he observed in his community with the receptionist. She urged him to share his story.

“She said with all the misinformation out there it would be a good thing for people to tell their stories,” Sleezer said. “There was definitely some urgency for someone to speak up about the way people have dragged science.”

The receptionist’s words stuck with Sleezer. He criticized those who have spent the duration of the virus working to tear down public health officials, instead of working to support and solve the problem with them.

“People often think that because I am a professor I am a flaming liberal, but I was raised and consider myself conservative — and I’m not trying to be political or criticize anyone here, but science and disease shouldn’t be about politics,” Sleezer said.

Classes begin Monday at Emporia State. There will be mass testing for students and staff, masks are required, and classrooms will be thoroughly disinfected.

Whether people have lost the meaning behind the number of the infected or just do not care, Sleezer said, the best he can do is focus on the things he can control and hope the steps the universities take are sufficient.

“Someone is inevitably going to get sick this fall,” Sleezer said. “That’s the scariest part of this virus, isn’t it? You never know who it’s going to hit, how fast it’s going to spread and how it’s going to affect those people.”

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Noah Taborda
Noah Taborda

Noah Taborda started his journalism career in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Missouri, covering local government and producing an episode of the podcast Show Me The State while earning his bachelor’s degree in radio broadcasting at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Noah then made a short move to Kansas City, Missouri, to work at KCUR as an intern on the talk show Central Standard and then in the newsroom, reporting on daily news and feature stories.