Notre Dame students share varying experiences of early University-sponsored quarantine and isolation
Maria Leontaras | Wednesday, September 9, 2020
Editor’s Note: This was featured in Katie Couric’s newsletter, Wake-Up Call. Subscribe here.
Missed meals. Lack of check-ins. Unclear departure dates.
This is what early quarantine and isolation looked like for some students at Notre Dame.
The University held nine overarching quarantine and isolation spaces with 1,000 beds, but as of Wednesday, there are eight locations with 925 spaces for students, spokesperson Dennis Brown said in an email. The available quantity fluctuates based on availability at Notre Dame’s secured sites.
The Observer spoke with students who were in University-sponsored quarantine or isolation in mid-to-late August. While their experiences differed, all students said they wished for clearer communication from the University.
Junior Kathleen Meyer quarantined at a hotel near campus for eight days.
Meyer ate dinner with friends Aug. 16 and 17 outdoors without following physical distancing protocols. One friend tested positive for COVID-19 Aug. 18, as did a few others in the group. Meyer was one of the few to test negative following the shared meals.
She was originally directed to resume life as normal, being sure to follow the University’s health and safety guidelines. Then, she was told she needed to go into quarantine.
Though she was fine with following the University’s protocol, Meyer said the miscommunication was a discouraging start to her time in the hotel.
“I was just frustrated because I wish there was more consistent communication on all ends,” she said.
Prior to Meyer’s time in quarantine, Notre Dame saw a spike in confirmed COVID-19 cases. Initially, the University largely blamed the outbreak on off-campus parties.
Meyer said this is not a fair assessment. She believes both the administration and students are equally responsible for the outbreak. The University was too trusting of students, she said, and students were too eager to break the rules –– herself included.
“I was going into other people’s rooms when I shouldn’t have been at the beginning of the year,” she said while in quarantine. “My thought process was, ‘Well, everyone here is tested negative. That’s how we got back on campus.’ Now, look at where we are.”
Quarantine was lonely and monotonous for Meyer, she said, except when her neighbor blasted music she could hear through the thin hotel walls.
“I can hear everything that’s going on in that person’s room,” she said while in quarantine. “I’m pretty sure they had people over last night, which really made me frustrated because we’re in isolation. What’s the point?”
After four days of quarantine and not hearing from the University, Meyer called the Care and Concern Team, a branch of the University’s COVID-19 Response Unit, to see what the next steps would be. She was scheduled for a four-day test the following day, Aug. 24.
Meyer received her negative result Aug. 27 around 11:30 p.m. and was scheduled for another test the next day.
She packed her bag, made her way to the stadium, tested negative again and returned to her room in Johnson Family Hall by 4 p.m. Aug. 28.
Seeing friends again was Meyer’s post-quarantine highlight.
“Seeing all of them for the first time when I got out was really fun. No hugging, obviously, we did the little elbow thing,” she said. “To get an opportunity to be with people again after being away was really, really nice.”
The COVID-19 Response Unit includes the Contact Tracing Team, Care and Concern Team, Housing Team, Release Team and the testing site staff, as well as the Wellness Center and University Health Services (UHS).
While each team has separate responsibilities, Brown said they meet and communicate frequently to ensure each member of each team is aware of what the others do. Some staffers are trained for the other teams, too.
Juniors Josh Agron, Mark Cheng and Sam Eppich quarantined at the Fischer Graduate Residences for four days.
The group lives in a quad in Keenan Hall consisting of two doubles connected by a common room. On Aug. 15, Eppich’s roommate ran a high fever. His roommate called UHS immediately and quarantined in his room as he waited for a response. He heard back from UHS the next day, went to get tested and was directed to quarantine.
Agron, Cheng and Eppich were then instructed to arrive at the Notre Dame Stadium testing site in 30 minutes to quarantine separately from their fourth roommate. They were told to bring everything they’d need “for the foreseeable future,” anywhere from four to 14 days, Eppich said.
The three of them did not get tested prior to entering quarantine –– they were separated Aug. 16 in case their fourth roommate tested positive and they would, in turn, be close contacts.
For their first few days in quarantine, the University was not aware that there were three people in the residence. The group was told they would be in a four-bedroom apartment. Instead, they were placed in a two-bedroom apartment.
Cheng got the couch.
Eppich received frequent calls checking on his well-being, and he frequently reminded the University he was there with his roommates, too.
“They only knew I was here,” Eppich said while in quarantine. “They were only going to bring one thing of food. They were only checking in on me.”
After not being contacted by a contact tracer Aug. 17, Agron and Cheng called UHS to check their status –– and to make sure they received meals.
“They said, ‘You guys aren’t even in the queue yet to get a contact tracer,’” Agron said while in the Fischer Graduate Residences. “They still didn’t even know we were here.”
After the call, the roommates all began receiving food until the morning they left. That day, they only got food for one.
On Aug. 19, they heard their fourth roommate tested negative for COVID-19. Eppich called his contact tracer and let her know. After confirming that, yes, there were two other people quarantining with him, Eppich received the instructions that they were approved to go back to campus. A car would pick them up any time between about 1 p.m. to 8 p.m. They were back at about 2 p.m.
Their roommate with symptoms walked back to Keenan from his separate quarantine location.
The quad was welcomed back to Keenan with a special sign congratulating them on beating COVID-19.
As of Tuesday, approximately 75 students are in Notre Dame quarantine and isolation units and about 90 off-campus students are in quarantine or isolation at their own residences.
The University offers its quarantine and isolation space to off-campus students, Brown said, but they are able to decide where they’d like to stay.
Following the Aug. 17 spike in positive COVID-19 cases, approximately 450 students were in quarantine or isolation.
One off-campus junior isolated for three days in University sponsored housing.
She started feeling tired Aug. 14 and knew something wasn’t right. The next day, she woke up feeling worse. The junior took her temperature only to find that she had a fever.
It was a Saturday. She called UHS. The phone kept ringing.
After leaving many voicemails, she finally got a call back to hear that her information was given to a nurse, and she would get another call later that day. She never did.
On Aug. 16, she woke up with a fever again. Later that day, she got a call from UHS and was advised to get a rapid test off-campus since the University did not provide them. As she was about to leave for her off-campus appointment, a doctor from Saint Liam’s gave her a call.
The junior was told she needed to be tested immediately and she was going to be quarantined and isolated off campus no matter the results of her test. She said she was scheduled for a test off-campus, and the doctor told her to head to the University’s testing site to get a rapid test.
“That’s interesting because earlier that day, someone told me they don’t do rapid testing, but then he was telling me they do, so I don’t know,” she said.
Her rapid test had a positive result, so the junior was moved to a holding area for students who were waiting to be transported to isolation. She received a room key, some papers and a “goodie bag,” as she called it.
“This is my favorite,” she said. “It was just a bag of water and salt packets.”
The junior had no idea where she was going. Even when she arrived at her new residence around 2:30 p.m., she wasn’t sure where she was. She didn’t get dinner until 8:30 p.m.
The next day, Aug. 17, she did not get food or water until she sent an email around 2 p.m. She got chips, an apple, an orange and a box of lettuce. They forgot dinner again.
On Aug. 18, she received a breakfast box with a bag of snacks and water meant to last for a few days. She did not receive dinner.
The junior, agitated by the lack of care and attention, sent an email to the COVID Response Unit at 10:32 p.m. saying if her off-campus roommate were to test positive for COVID-19 and she continued to be left off of the meal list, she would be spending the remainder of her isolation period in her off-campus home.
She received a response the morning of Aug. 19, saying they “will work to have meals delivered to [her] right away.” The junior responded, saying she hadn’t heard knocks around her residence either, saying someone might want to check in on the other students in isolation as well.
At 2:51 p.m. the same day, she emailed the Response Unit in the same thread, saying her roommate tested positive for COVID-19 and she would be returning to their apartment.
“Hopefully this space can be cleaned and used for an on-campus resident in need of quarantine space,” she said in the email to the Response Unit.
“Was it allowed? Probably not,” she told The Observer in a follow-up email, “but I told the contact tracers on the phone a couple days later, and they essentially said, ‘Oh, OK.’ I heard now they have monitors to keep people from leaving. But in my defense, they literally were not bringing me food or water.”
The junior did not have to get tested again before returning to campus life.
She walked home.
“We have acknowledged that there were missteps at the beginning and, to address these issues, we brought in additional personnel to assist with properly meeting the needs of our students in Q&I,” Brown said on behalf of the University.
“In addition to the students who encountered difficulties, others found the University’s response to be excellent –– at least given the circumstances.”
Senior Emma Shea isolated at the Morris Inn for 11 days.
Her brother helped her move into her off-campus apartment and stayed for the first week of classes. He left and tested positive for COVID-19.
Shea called the University Aug. 15 and had a test scheduled for Aug. 17 due to her already-developing COVID-19 symptoms. Feeling worse, Shea called again and was moved to isolation Aug. 16, the night before her official test.
Arriving at Notre Dame Stadium, Shea received a folder with isolation information and was directed to the Morris Inn with special instructions.
“They’re like, ‘Go to the Morris Inn, ask for John at the front and don’t mention quarantine or isolation because we don’t want people to freak out,’” Shea said. “I feel like I’m on this secret mission to go find John at the Morris Inn and tell him a lie? Tell him why I’m there? I don’t know.”
She arrived at the on-campus hotel, told the front desk workers she was there to see John, was greeted by name and taken to a room upstairs. Shea called her contact tracer and was told she’d get another call the next day.
It didn’t come for four days.
Shea never missed a meal, but she received food with gluten and dairy for the first few days, two things she specified she cannot eat the night she arrived. After calling the hotel itself, the issue was resolved.
Life in isolation was quiet –– until it wasn’t. For three days in a row, the fire alarm went off at the Inn. The first day was Aug. 17. Shea said she and other students in isolation filed out of the hotel the first time.
“It’s a bunch of single college kids with masks on all sitting in their pajamas outside,” she said. “There’s no way they don’t know that we all are the infected ones. We’re all sitting outside; I’m trying to be far away from anyone. People are walking by on the sidewalk, and I’m just moving, trying to stay back. It was so strange.”
After a while, people were allowed to go back into the hotel. Shea called the entire situation uncomfortable.
About an hour later, the alarm went off again. The next day, it happened again. Twice. It happened one more time the next day, Aug. 19. Shea said she didn’t see a single person outside.
On Aug. 20, Shea received her first call from a contact tracer since Aug. 16. She was told the University would be checking in on her daily. So far, they had not. Shea said she was the sickest from Aug. 16 to Aug. 20, so the lack of contact was “unfortunate,” but the staff she did talk with “could not have been nicer.”
This was the only time she was contacted throughout isolation.
Shea was told Aug. 20 that she would be able to leave the hotel Aug. 25. She called the University on Aug. 24 to be sure she would be able to leave the next day. The senior was then told she could not leave until Aug. 26.
On the morning of her new release day, Shea called to start the process off before her classes began. She was transferred or called back eight or nine times before she spoke with someone, only to find out she wasn’t in the system to be released.
Eventually, Shea spoke with a nurse at UHS who said her information was put into the system incorrectly. Someone switched the date she was put in isolation with the date she tested positive for COVID-19. Shea was transferred to a call with the release team shortly after.
“And they were like, ‘Oh, well, actually looks like you should have gotten out from isolation yesterday,’” she said.
Shea answered three questions prior to being cleared for release: Do you have a fever? A cough? Can you taste?
No, no, no. Then she was good to go.
Shea returned to her apartment Aug. 26 and attended her online classes for the day.
The Care and Concern Team focuses on contacting students in quarantine and isolation daily. The team employs over 20 full-time staff members and hundreds of volunteers who work on the weekends, Brown said.
Students now receive a direct number to the Care and Concern Team to call with any questions or concerns.
One off-campus senior isolated at University Edge for 11 days.
The senior and her roommates had a close friend over for dinner Aug. 11. They spent time together like normal, without masks or distancing. Everyone felt fine, but then the group received a text from their dinner guest.
She had tested positive for COVID-19 on Friday, Aug. 14.
The roommates contacted the University, but were told their exposure had been so long ago, they needed to wait to see if they had symptoms before getting tested. The group ended up getting PCR tests in La Porte, Ind., to be careful. They spent the weekend in quarantine in their off-campus apartment, waiting for their results.
The senior found out she tested positive late Aug. 16 while her two roommates were negative. She contacted the University on Aug. 17 and was told she needed to isolate separately from her roommates. A van transported her from her apartment to her University sponsored isolation at University Edge.
The senior was isolated with three other people, all with separate rooms. She knew them through friends of friends.
“It’s nice to have them here,” she said while in isolation, “so it’s not just me going crazy by myself.”
On their first night in isolation, the University missed the group for dinner, so they ordered a meal through a delivery app. The senior received an email late in the night apologizing for the mishap, and the school reimbursed her for the dinner she paid for. She did not miss a meal after that.
The senior was not called by a contact tracer during her time in isolation. She said she wished there was more clarity throughout the isolation process.
“We don’t really know when we’re getting out of here,” she said in isolation. “I talked to a nurse, and she gave me a date, but the University wasn’t like, ‘This is your date that you can leave.’ It’s kind of all just up in the air.”
The senior received a call Aug. 26 to complete a health check in order to be cleared to leave isolation the next day. On Aug. 27, she confirmed she had no new symptoms and was released from isolation.
She was driven back to her off-campus home, happy to see her roommates and have human connection again.
Brown said the University acknowledges it “stumbled at the start,” but the past few weeks have been promising given the decrease in new COVID-19 case numbers.
“But there is a long way to go –– more than 70 days until the end of the semester. We really need everyone –– students, faculty and staff –– to remain diligent,” he said. “That is especially so this coming weekend with the first football game. It would be easy to relax and ease up on masking, physical distancing and other safe practices. Our sincere hope is that everyone will stick with what has been working.”
Shea published a Letter to the Editor thanking her professors for being kind and understanding during her time in isolation.
Later, one of her professors said he never knew how sick she was. Professors, he said, are supposed to receive daily updates from the University on how their students in quarantine and isolation are doing.
Shea, having only heard from a contact tracer once, never had her information sent to this professor. She found the handling of her situation frustrating.
“I just hope that kids who end up getting [COVID-19] later this semester won’t go through something where they’re sitting in a room for 10 or 12 days and no one has contacted them,” she said in a follow-up interview.
Students are given a folder of information when they are sent to quarantine or isolation.
“Here your health and well-being are important to us,” one reads, with information on quarantine and isolation, what to expect, some guidelines and common feelings on being separated from others. “We are here to assist you.”