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‘It’s starting to feel like it was before’: Pandemic looms over start of semester

| Friday, January 14, 2022

As students left campus in December, COVID-19 cases surged across the country. That trend has continued as the United States is averaging more than 700,000 new cases a day, far more than at any previous point in the pandemic. Though the Omicron variant has proven less fatal and less likely to lead to serious symptoms, especially for the vaccinated, the variant has recently led to a surge in hospitalizations nonetheless.

With a return to masks on campus, the University’s requirement to receive a booster vaccination, professors putting renewed emphasis on recording lectures and new restrictions on gatherings and events, the future of the pandemic on campus remains uncertain to many.

Josh Vo, a first-year in Stanford Hall, arrived on campus Sunday, having taken an at-home test before traveling from Wichita, Kansas. A friend he spent time with had tested positive and he wanted to stay safe, so his family tried to find a test despite shortages across the region and few opportunities to visit a testing site. The at-home test came back negative.

Vo’s plan was to spend the weekend in Chicago with a friend’s family before driving to Notre Dame on Sunday, when residence halls re-opened to students. At the airport in Kansas, however, he started to experience mild symptoms, including an itch in his nose and some sneezing. Given the changing weather, the spread of colds and his recent negative test, Vo did not jump to the conclusion he had COVID-19.

“I started having some anxiety,” Vo recalled, “but there was nothing I could do at this point.”

Throughout the weekend, he felt his “stuffy nose get stuffier” and stayed masked while attempting to social distance. On Sunday, Vo said he rushed to his room with another at-home test when he arrived on campus.

“Fifteen minutes in, there were two little lines, and I started freaking out,” Vo said. “It’s a lot better to have some kind of answer, but I could’ve been spreading this to my friend’s family or people on the plane, and that’s quite something to have weighing on you.”

Vo called University Health Services (UHS), which was closed that day, but he was directed to the 24-hour line which told him he would get a call back from a nurse in four hours. 

“After five hours of analyzing the texture of my ceiling, I got a call from a nurse, and she asked me about my symptoms,” Vo said. Describing his stuffy nose, Vo was told that his symptoms were not enough to confirm the positive result his at-home test had indicated. She said that he should mask and wash his hands regularly, but there was not enough for him to isolate in his room away from his roommate. Vo and his roommate decided that he should not enter the room regardless.

The next morning, Vo went to the Joyce Center for a testing appointment and tested positive again. He was transported to a quarantine suite in the Hampton Inn north of campus, provided with a $30 Grubhub gift card for his first meal. 

In quarantine, Vo describes grappling with missing the first week of classes, along with boredom (he has had the time to watch all of “Only Murders In The Building“) and anxiety over his situation.

“I’m trying to stay caught up while knowing I’m going to be behind,” he said. 

Far from the regular surveillance testing of last academic year, and unlike other universities that are requiring on-arrival tests from students, the University will continue to test only those who received exemptions from the vaccine and those experiencing symptoms limited to high fever, difficulty breathing or loss of taste or smell.

“Any member of the campus community who is symptomatic can be tested at the Testing Center. Faculty and staff should contact the Notre Dame Wellness Center and students should contact UHS,” University spokesperson Dennis Brown said in an email.

Caroline Burton, an off-campus senior from St. Louis, Missouri, said her father tested positive for the virus three days prior to arriving on campus. This came during a week when much of her family had contracted or been recovering from the virus. When she called UHS on Monday, she was told that since it had been more than 48 hours since contact and she hadn’t developed symptoms, she did not need a test. 

“I told [them] that I would really prefer if they would give me a test, and because I pushed back on them, they let me get tested,” Burton said. “It seemed like they only gave it to me because I would feel comfortable, not because they thought I needed it.” 

Brown also said the University will not track variants of the virus on the COVID-19 dashboard. The dashboard will return for the semester on Jan. 18 following Martin Luther King Jr. day and will update each Monday thereafter.

Megan Howley, a sophomore in Breen-Phillips Hall, went back home in December to Evergreen Park, Illinois and worked at a restaurant over break with few restrictions related to COVID-19. On Christmas, Howley began feeling a headache and stuffy nose. Her friends were planning to get dinner the following week but they decided to take precautions.

“I don’t remember any stage in the pandemic with so many people exposed at once, so we all decided to take an at-home test or get a rapid test,” Howley said.

Howley, along with the rest of her family and much of the extended family they saw at Christmas, tested positive despite mild symptoms.

“None of us were very sick at all,” she said. “I was honestly expecting more [because] it was so little.” 

Howley said she is grateful for the fall semester and described it as a “180 from last year,” from getting to “see people’s faces” and “going to friends’ dorms freely” to “such large crowds” at events such as football games. With the reintroduction of the mask mandate and limitations on events, as well as a limited number of guests in a dorm room, Howley said it feels different.

“We’re not fully in this protective vaccinated bubble anymore,” she said. “Coming back from break, where everyone went home across the country, there’s that thought that people could have brought it back.”

From his quarantine at the Hampton Inn, Vo paraphrased Sirius Black in the Harry Potter films.

“It’s starting to feel like it was before, and that’s very scary,” he said.

Asked whether students should be prepared for the return of policies such as dual learning or an extension of the mask mandate, Brown said the University continues to monitor the state of the pandemic.

“As we’ve said over the past two years, the health of our campus and broader community is our top priority,” Brown said. “We are constantly monitoring the ebb and flow of the [virus] and have in the past and will continue to adjust as needed.”

In an email to the campus community Thursday evening, University President Fr. John Jenkins struck a hopeful note.

“If we do the things we need to do — getting a booster, wearing our masks indoors, and showing up for testing if we have symptoms or are asked to do so as part of surveillance testing — public health experts are hopeful that we will see cases of the omicron variant peak and then decrease over the next few weeks,” Jenkins wrote.

Howley concurred, recounting the number of people she saw receiving her booster earlier in the week.

“It seems like everyone’s committed to getting where we need to be,” she said.

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About Isa Sheikh

Isa Sheikh is a first-year in Stanford Hall and serves as associate news editor. A history and political science major hailing from Sacramento, he enjoys reading The Observer on the 11th floor of Hes, sipping Cinderblock Coffee in the morning, and re-reading the same Didion essays. He can be reached at [email protected]

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