Notre Dame should change its COVID-19 testing policy
Letter to the Editor | Monday, September 20, 2021
It all started with a sore throat on Thursday night. By Friday morning, my condition had worsened. The sore throat became a dry cough, and my body just wasn’t feeling right. I didn’t know what it was, but I suspected something. I called University Health Services (UHS) and told them how I felt. It wasn’t enough for a test, they told me. The person in charge recommended I take cough syrup and give them a call back if I developed one of the three key symptoms: difficulty breathing, high fever or a loss of taste or smell. I only developed some of these symptoms after three full days of sickness.
I am writing this during the last days of my isolation period. I am happy that right now I can read and write without much of a problem. Friends, family and professors have taken care of me, sent me love and supplied me with the necessities to help me get through. But a week ago, I was in a bad place. I had severe sinusitis, fever, chills, headaches, body pain and an intermittent dry cough. It was a breakthrough case of COVID-19. Isa, my wife, was by my side, trying to work while taking care of me, and also breathing my air in. She was exposed. But we didn’t know it because I didn’t have access to a rapid test. Notre Dame, essentially the only place in my area where rapid tests can be scheduled for free on the same day, refused to test me on time. They told me it was their policy.
So, I scheduled a test at a CVS, the nearest I found: Nappanee, Indiana, about 45 minutes away if you have a car, which a lot of us international graduate students don’t. CVS only had PCR tests available at 10:20 a.m. Saturday — the next day. To get there, I still had to go through one of the worst nights: I drenched the bed in sweat, had chills, body aches, I couldn’t breathe from the congestion and to top it off my face ached from the pressure caused by the sinusitis. I wanted to take a COVID test because I had my doubts, although I was inclined to think it was not COVID. The UHS representative had told me: “difficulty breathing, high fever, loss of taste or smell.” I had none of them. My fever was mild, and if I couldn’t breathe, it wasn’t because of my lungs, but because of my congested sinuses. I told myself: “It’s just a severe case of sinusitis, you’ve had this before many times, it’s nothing else.” Besides, some friends went through similar symptoms and tested negative. “It’s the flu coming from backstage, where it had been relegated. Nothing to worry about.”
The test results came Sunday night, when I was already feeling better. We were watching a movie in the living room. Our roommates had been around the whole day: cooking, doing laundry, coming and going. The day before they went to the beach with other members of our department, so Sunday they stayed home. We were still cautious, almost unconsciously: They didn’t get too close. You never know. Things had started tasting weird. But I had also felt that before: The metallic taste that a strong cold can cause. During the movie I had been checking the CVS MyChart app. It had been more than 36 hours since the test and I was beginning to feel anxious about it. It was almost midnight, but I decided to give it one last try before bed. I read the results as if on autopilot: positive. After reading it for the fourth or so time, I put my shirt around my mouth and showed Isa my phone. She turned pale.
Had I gotten tested Friday morning, when I called the UHS, my isolation could have started that same day. That would have meant two days less of extremely high exposure for my wife. We wouldn’t have had to drive 45 minutes to Nappanee to get a test at a drive-thru while I was feeling like, well, you know how. The whole circle of exposure would have been diminished if the three magic symptoms were not the only way to get a rapid test at Notre Dame. What if I really was just so convinced that it wasn’t COVID until Monday, when things went from tasting funny to simply not tasting at all? What if my roommates and Isa were already infected and had gone to the White Sox game we had tickets for that Sunday?
The South Bend Tribune has reported that the South Bend area is experiencing a shortage in rapid tests due to the Delta variant. That means that my case is far from unique. You can see a similar phenomenon everywhere: You feel bad, but probably not what-you-think-is-COVID bad. You can’t get a rapid test. You have to schedule a PCR, you wait for the results and it turned out that you are positive and didn’t self-isolate, but were walking around for a couple of days, being a vector for the now twice-as-contagious Delta variant. I can’t stop thinking about the many surveillance tests I took last semester. Every two weeks, without exception, I was spitting in a little tube, even if I was feeling as good as it gets in grad life. What changed? Oh, sure, the vaccination blitz. It is, indeed, something big enough to change the testing policy. I just can’t imagine how bad it could have gotten if I wasn’t vaccinated. Isa wouldn’t have gotten a negative test, and she would be sick right now. Even my roommates, who were not in such close contact, would probably be sick too. And some other people who I met before developing strong symptoms, or who my contacts met over the weekend. So, I do thank taxpayers of the world for the vaccine. And I appreciate Notre Dame’s effort in creating such a great vaccination rate on campus.
But having the vaccine doesn’t mean that we have to send everything else down the sink. Breakthrough cases, like mine, are something to worry about, and they likely merit a lot of it. “The whole notion of herd immunity from two vaccine shots is flying out the window very quickly with this new variant,” said Harvard epidemiologist Michael Mina in an interview with New York Magazine. And according to this article from NPR, the Delta variant has dropped the effectiveness of vaccines in preventing symptomatic disease. Sure, Notre Dame has a very high vaccination rate, so let’s say I did pass it on to at least one other vaccinated graduate student: It wasn’t that bad, isolation for 10 days and you’re good to go back to not wearing a mask. Case closed? But what about the right to not be sick at all? To be taken care of by those who have to? And what about other people in South Bend? Or St. Joseph County, where vaccination rates are only above 50%? The unvaccinated waiter at that cafe I could have gone to Friday morning? Aren’t we also responsible for the people around us? Didn’t we learn the hard way that rapid testing and isolation were also great tools for fighting the spread of this deadly virus? We changed the testing policy because of the high on-campus vaccination rate, but forgot about the low rate in the broader territory we share. To me, that’s only widening the already gaping wound between Notre Dame and the South Bend community. It tastes of “we really don’t care much about what happens beyond Angela Boulevard.” A sort of metallic taste.
I really hope that Notre Dame changes its testing policy. It seems like changes are already on track, or at least you could tell that from the numbers available in the COVID-19 dashboard: Testing has gone up from 955 tests during the first week of class to 1,494 last week. Or are people just lying their way in on the symptomatic test request form, which is the only way to get a test if you would like to be responsible but not already several days into the symptoms? If that number of tests is available, why not test someone who might be infected, but has only mild symptoms, precisely to be safe? What the representative from the UHS said over the phone had an impact on what I perceived I was feeling. I repeated the mantra to myself: “difficulty breathing, high fever, loss of taste or smell.” I spoke to a health professional who told me there was nothing to worry about. I was vaccinated, and I didn’t have any of the three magic symptoms. She was following the procedure. A triage algorithm. The procedure, I see now, is flawed. But it can be easily fixed, so as to bring us closer to that part of Notre Dame’s mission about creating “a sense of human solidarity and concern for the common good.”
PhD student, Spanish
The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.