Students share varying experiences with testing procedures, contact tracing and quarantine criteria
Adriana Perez | Monday, August 24, 2020
After the number of positive COVID-19 cases began to rise among Notre Dame students since classes began Aug. 10, the University adapted its testing protocols. The Notre Dame community was notified of plans to expand testing and changes to the daily health check system in an email Aug. 16. Despite these changes, undergraduate students have had contrasting experiences and reactions to the testing and contact tracing procedures on campus during the second week of classes.
WSBT-TV released a series of interviews Aug. 17 with some Notre Dame students who had issues securing COVID-19 tests during the first week of classes. The Chicago Tribune also reported Friday that students were facing difficulties regarding testing the first week.
“[Students] said it was difficult to schedule appointments, that the health center’s hotline often went to voicemail and that sometimes inquiries weren’t returned for hours or days,” according to The Chicago Tribune. “Some students also questioned the thoroughness of the school’s contact tracing program, which is staffed by just 18 people.”
After the daily health check system was updated, some students still expressed concerns about the time it has taken for contact tracers to reach out to them and the lack of communication thereafter. Many have shared their worries about the criteria used to quarantine people.
Other students have been emphatic about the need to remain positive in uncertain times.
Many of the students interviewed by The Observer are or were quarantined or isolated at the Morris Inn, University Edge, Ivy Court or in their own off-campus residences. According to the University, students are required to quarantine if they have had close contact with someone diagnosed with COVID-19 and are awaiting initial test results or have had negative test results. If symptomatic students are awaiting test results or if they test positive for COVID-19, they are put in isolation.
“We are not perfect, but we have improved,” Paul J. Browne, vice president for public affairs and communications, said in an email responding to a request for comment regarding students’ concerns.
“As was made clear in the University’s letter to students on Tuesday and The Observer editorial on Friday, we’re on the same page,” he said. “Students, faculty and staff are all in this together, and it’s only by working together that we can stay safe and continue to stay on campus for the remainder of the semester.”
Sophomore Gavin Uhran, who lives on campus, said one of his friend’s roommates tested positive Aug. 15. However, their rector told Uhran’s friend he did not have to isolate.
So, Uhran and his friend studied together over the weekend. Then, his friend tested positive Aug. 17.
The same day, Uhran updated his health check to indicate he had been in close contact with someone who had been diagnosed with COVID-19. He then received a Red Pass B and, two hours later, an email about getting tested.
Beginning last week, students will receive either a Red Pass A or a Red Pass B after their daily health check if they report “one of the big three symptoms — fever above 100.4 degrees, shortness of breath or loss taste or smell — or contact with someone who had tested positive, according to the Aug. 16 announcement. Both results automatically generate an appointment to get tested.
Individuals who have been in close contact with someone diagnosed with COVID-19 in the last two weeks “will receive a rapid antigen test as a precautionary measure, but will not be required to isolate unless the test result comes back positive.”
“When I got the email, I think it was a 12-minute turnaround before the one-hour slot I had to get [the test] done,” Uhran said. “If my friend hadn’t told me, and if I’d just been reached out to by a contact tracer, it would’ve been 12 minutes to pack everything up and get to the testing center.”
When asked about his experience in the testing center, Uhran said he waited in line with around 60 to 80 people.
“The employees were very nice,” he said. “They communicated very clearly.”
As the University has previously noted, patients at the testing center are instructed to complete nasal swabs for the Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test on their own, twisting a nasopharyngeal swab 10 times in each nostril.
“They asked me to put [the swab] in my nose a lot further than the one at home, until you can’t see the tip of it,” Uhran said. “That’s what they wanted me to do. My eyes were watering.”
Even after testing negative, Uhran was still told to quarantine. He was tested again Friday, which yielded negative results, as well. He is still in quarantine, but said he will be retested soon.
“I didn’t even think about the fact that if I tested negative I would have to be quarantined somewhere,” he said.
Uhran said he was lucky to know what to bring in his go-bag because his friend had already been tested and isolated before him and had advised him to bring as much as possible because “there’s not a lot of stuff [in quarantine and isolation].”
“So, I was fortunate to pack everything from snacks, change of clothes, all the toiletries,” Uhran said.
While the University gives students some information on what to bring, Uhran said, they do not detail specific needs attached to students’ possible circumstances after testing, such as quarantine or isolation.
“That could’ve been much clearer,” he said.
Uhran said he has tried to stay positive to get through quarantine.
“If people are still negative about the fact that we might be getting sent home, just stay positive and happy while we’re here.” Uhran said. “Because it’s better to enjoy the time we have left with each other this semester, if that’s going to be the case.”
Senior Emma Shea had her younger brother help her move into her off-campus apartment. He stayed with her the first week of classes, but when he left for home on the weekend, he felt sick. He later tested positive for COVID-19. By then, Shea had already been experiencing a sore throat.
She called the CRU hotline Aug. 15, and a nurse answered and told her to take Tylenol and cough drops and to call back during business hours. The next day, she got an automated email saying she had been scheduled for a test Monday due to her symptoms.
“I know a lot of people didn’t have that,” Shea said, referring to peers who had experienced issues securing tests the first week. “I was super lucky. I was so surprised that I immediately had an appointment.”
Because her symptoms worsened by the night of Aug. 16, she called the hotline again and was given the option to go into isolation immediately. She went to the testing center Monday and tested positive for COVID-19.
Shea has been in isolation since then. The headboard of her hotel bed is decorated with Christmas lights and a garland from her study abroad semester in Chile. In a corner of the room, a salt lamp gives off a gentle glow.
She had heard what she called horror stories from friends who had been isolated before her and had no silverware or comforters. So, Shea packed well, including bedding — which she has not used — and the decorations, since she had room in her suitcase.
“I was like, I might as well have something to cheer me up while I’m here for two weeks,” she said.
Shea said she felt in control of her situation, since she was given the possibility of isolating before she even tested positive. She also said she thought the University was initially good at communicating with her.
“Sunday, at least, I felt like it was super efficient, they were very responsive,” she said.
After Aug. 16, however, things changed. She had been told a contact tracer would call her regularly, but she did not get a call until Thursday. After she tested positive Monday, she tried calling the CRU hotline but received no response.
Shea referred to this lack of regular communication as a shortcoming on behalf of the University. When she finally got a call Thursday, the contact tracer explained that her team had been spread thin because of the rise in cases.
“[The contact tracer] couldn’t have been nicer,” Shea said. “Clearly, they just don’t have the resources to maintain contact with all of the kids who have coronavirus.”
But by then two of Shea’s friends, whom she had been with the first weekend, had already tested positive, though both were asymptomatic. Shea said they had only known to self-isolate Monday and Tuesday — when in-person classes were still taking place on campus — and to get tested because she reached out to them.
During move-in weekend and on the first day of class, senior Elaine Romero had been in close contact without a mask with someone who tested positive a few days later, Aug. 12.
“The girl I was in contact with said that I would get a call from somebody that day,” she told The Observer. “And nobody ever called me that day, so I actually made the appointment and went off-campus to go and get a test.”
Four of her friends had been exposed at the same time as her, Romero said. Romero first had issues with testing and contact tracing the first week of classes, when other students were having testing issues as well, and before the expansion in testing protocols was announced Aug. 16.
“My friends got tested the same day by the University, and nobody ever called me to say that I could get tested that day, even though I was listed as a direct contact,” Romero said.
Romero went to a third-party testing center located 45 minutes away, she said. She then quarantined in her off-campus residence as she waited for her results, which came back negative. Contact tracers reached out to her the next day, Aug. 13.
“They told me the next day, when they called me, that they expected me to quarantine,” she said. “But they didn’t give me any information about getting tested by them, or what I would have to do to be out of quarantine. So, it was kind of confusing.”
Like Shea, Romero was told that someone would call her every day, but she stopped receiving calls on or around Aug. 15, she said.
“Eventually, they stopped calling,” she added. “I kept calling them and nobody would pick up, so it kind of felt like I was getting ghosted by University Health Services.”
She said she thought there was a lot of miscommunication on behalf of the COVID response team and the contact tracers.
“It was just really frustrating because I couldn’t get an answer [about] when I could get tested,” she added. “So, I tested off campus on Wednesday and got those results on Friday. And I figured that would be enough to get out of quarantine because my friends were already out of quarantine.”
Romero was finally tested Tuesday at the University Testing Center, almost a full week after being in close contact with the person who tested positive for COVID-19. She had to continue to quarantine until those results came back, too, whereas her friends who tested negative were already out.
“And part of the reason was they felt like they had to lie about symptoms to get tested,” she said, explaining why her friends were tested before her.
Romero said she thought she would not need to lie because she thought she would be tested anyway. But after the new daily health check protocols were put in place a week ago, she purposefully failed her health check Aug. 17 to receive a red pass, she said.
However, Romero claims she still did not get automatically scheduled for an appointment. She was only later called by someone from University Health Services (UHS), who told her she could get tested the next day.
“I appreciate it. I think it’s not quite living up to what they claim,” she said about the new testing protocols. “But I know that they’re like trying to do their best, and I know that they are really making a concerted effort to improve it, because I think this past week was kind of more than they expected. But I was still pretty disappointed.”
Junior Michael Shea Enright, who is living on campus, is also currently in quarantine even after testing negative for COVID-19. He had a slight cough and felt winded since last weekend, and reported the symptoms in his health check Wednesday morning. He cannot remember if he was given a Red Pass A or B, but within the hour, he had gotten an email about getting tested.
According to the University, a Red Pass A warrants quarantine even if the RAT results are negative. The individual is then administered a PCR test and is quarantined until those results come back. This was the process Enright underwent.
Enright said he spent about three hours total at the testing center, waiting to get tested and then waiting to be sent off to a quarantine location after his negative result. As he stood by in the second waiting area, he was given food and water.
“People were still very distanced,” Enright said. He also noted that all people waiting with him were wearing masks. But this did little to reassure him about his safety, he said.
“I think my biggest problem with it, personally, was when I was sitting there, in the waiting area. I was negative, so I was just keeping to myself,” Enright said. “And there’s people like, literally, six feet to my right who were like, ‘Oh, yeah, I tested positive.’ I’m like, ‘Cool.’ If I didn’t have it then, I guess I have it now, because I’m just sitting around with these eight to 10 positive-tested people, and I’m like, ‘Why am I here?’”
Enright felt the CRU staff was very responsive, but had some reservations about the criteria and the process to send students into quarantine.
“At the testing site they’re pretty responsive, except when it came to the whole, you know, finding isolation spots,” he noted. “That was kind of a struggle, because it was two hours of sitting there, and they didn’t really tell us why.”
A nurse had told him that since he had mild symptoms but tested negative, it was “a tough judgment call.” She then decided to quarantine him.
“It seems like their guidelines for sending people [to quarantine] are a little more unclear than they should be,” Enright said.
Enright has not, to his knowledge, been in contact with anyone who has had COVID-19. His PCR test results came back negative Friday; however, he is still in quarantine. Only people who, unlike Enright, have been asymptomatic for the duration of quarantine can be released with a negative test on the seventh day, according to the University.
“I’m just a healthy person taking up a room — that seems pretty inefficient,” he said Thursday, before he knew he would test negative for a second time..
Sitting in quarantine, Enright said he felt exceptionally under-packed for life in isolation.
“I had to ask for a pen today because I realized this morning, I just didn’t have a pen,” he said.
Patrick Magner, who is a senior living off-campus, said that over the weekend, he was in close contact with a former roommate who tested positive Wednesday afternoon.
He met up with his friends Aug. 15 to play football and ultimate frisbee. At times, he said, they took off their face masks.
“We have clung to our pot of people, in that there are 10 of us who all live in apartments, and it’s kind of exclusively the group we’ve hung out with,” he explained.
Because he didn’t know his friend would later be diagnosed with COVID-19, and he didn’t have any symptoms, Magner went to class Monday and Tuesday.
“The infuriating thing to me, and what made me really upset about that was they hadn’t actually asked him about contact tracing, he did all the contact tracing on his own,” he said. “Maybe it was just one lapse in judgment by someone working at the facility,” he added.
When he found out about his friend’s positive test, Magner drove up to the testing center but was told to make an appointment. He called UHS around 5 p.m., but couldn’t get through to anyone. Early Thursday morning, he called again, but they also didn’t answer then, he said.
At noon, he received an email. By then, he was already considering getting tested in La Porte, Indiana, in Niles, Michigan, or somewhere else in South Bend, he said. Magner and his other friends all tested negative Thursday at the University Testing Center.
“If I had been positive, that’s 24 hours they could have spent telling people that I’ve been in contact with — who have no idea about my friend testing positive — that they would need to be tested,” Magner said.
His friend who tested positive Wednesday was contacted Friday morning for contact tracing. But he was told only to report people whom he had been in contact with since Monday, which excluded Magner.
“Ultimately, I got a response within 24 hours, and I was set up to go, and that was great and I appreciate that,” he added. “But I just feel like, in the interest of keeping everyone safe, it would behoove the University to have been tested sooner.”
In an email sent to students Thursday, the University announced the launch of a surveillance testing plan beginning Friday, in which faculty and staff will also participate.
Magner hopes the newly implemented surveillance testing will help others avoid similar experiences.
Junior Jillie Randle, who lives off-campus, started showing symptoms resembling the common cold Aug. 13. Over the next few days, these symptoms got worse. She said she felt like she could not leave her bed, but she did not have a fever.
By Monday, she had a cough, congestion, body aches and chills. She also lost her sense of taste and smell. After failing her daily health check, she was immediately contacted, she said.
Randle was told to pack for seven days and bring toiletries. She was still a bit skeptical that she had COVID-19, she said. But once at the testing center, her results came back positive. She has been isolated ever since.
“I definitely should have packed more,” she said.
Randle was contacted by a contact tracer the next day around noon. The same day, seven of her eight roommates tested positive too. Randle said she’s not certain how exactly she contracted COVID-19.
“My friends and I, to be honest, weren’t the best about masks and stuff outside of school, so I don’t know,” she added. “And obviously, there’s eight of us, too, so if one person was irresponsible, it definitely spread.”
Randle shared an Instagram post to her personal account Thursday evening, posting a bright green square, evocative of the HERE Campaign. In white, it read, “we love it HERE.” A golden dome replaced the hole in the letter “R.” Her post has accumulated over 1,700 likes since first being shared.
“Take a second amidst your disdain, negativity and criticism to realize how lucky we are to attend a university that is willing to be under the world’s scrutiny … to possibly fail … just to have our community back,” the accompanying caption reads.
When asked what motivated her to make the post, Randle said she has “just honestly been really frustrated with how much criticism Notre Dame has been getting.”
“I just felt like I had to stand up for a large majority of the student population who genuinely appreciate everything Notre Dame is doing,” she added. “And yes, obviously, it’s not a perfect process. Yes, I’ve heard of many people not being able to get tests. But I think the most important part is that they want us here and they’re really trying to do their best, and they have a great process. It’s a process that has one hundred percent worked on me.”
In his address to Notre Dame students Aug. 18, University President Fr. John Jenkins announced classes would switch online for the next couple of weeks.
“I think it was a great decision for them to go online for two weeks,” Randle said about the announcement. “But I’m just really hoping that this is a positive thing and that we can all learn from it and come back better than before.”