Looking Back episode 2: Quarantine, testing and staying safe

and | Staff Reporter and Senior Scene Editor

Over the final weeks of the spring semester, Senior Scene Editor Olivia Poolos and Staff Reporter Jared Adelman spoke to Washington University students, administrators and doctors as they recalled what it was like to make friends six feet away, test positive for COVID, make school-wide decisions and muddle through new and unexpected obstacles. This second episode of Looking Back, a three-part audio series, features Wash. U. students and administrators discussing the University’s safety procedures over the last year. Music by Kevin McLeod.

You can read Olivia and Jared’s letter about this project here.

The words "Looking Back" spread across three horizontal lines in red and green colors. On the right side, smaller green text reads "3-Part Student Life Audio Series." A green trapezoid from the right side of the screen makes the two Os in the word "Look" appear like eyes.Graphic by Christine Watridge | Student Life

You can also listen to this episode of Looking Back on Spotify or Apple Podcasts.

We have edited this transcript of the podcast for clarity:

(:12) Jared Adelman: Hey, it’s Jared Adelman and you’re listening to “Looking Back,” a Student Life audio series. One of the most obvious stressors this year, at least for me, was the constant fear of getting sick. COVID-19 has killed millions of people and disrupted the lives of millions more. So, to prepare for the inevitable cases that were bound to occur on campus, Washington University prepared isolation housing, for those who tested positive, and quarantine housing, for the people that were in contact with someone who did. By this point in the year, everyone knows someone who has been in one of these places, or has themselves been subject to the terrifying and often lonely ordeal of being confined to one of the places. 

For me, I was lucky enough to avoid either situation, but some of my friends were not. There was always that sense of nervousness when someone you knew someone who tested positive. This mixed feeling of wanting to make sure they were going to be okay while secretly hoping you wouldn’t have to follow them in. Part of me feels wrong saying that, but I have a hunch I’m not alone.

To answer all things quarantine and isolation, Senior Scene Editor Via Poolos sat down with Interim Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Rob Wild. 

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(1:29) Olivia Poolos: Interim Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Rob Wild is a pretty busy guy. In the 22 minutes it took me to interview him, his email must have pinged a dozen times—proof of the large role he plays in University functioning. He walked me through Wash. U.’s thought processes when deciding on the logistics of quarantine and isolation housing. 

(1:50) Rob Wild:  “We knew that one of the strategies to be successful in not having to move to remote operations again was to prepare for positive COVID cases among the student community. And prepare to be able to also have to quarantine students who had been exposed to COVID.  

We felt [it] was really important to have a robust system in place to accommodate a large number of students, if we had to really as a way to mitigate the spread in the community, and so the only reason, the main reason we selected the spaces we used, which primarily have been the Millbrook apartments for isolation and Dardick and Nemrov on the South 40 for quarantine was that we just wanted… we felt it was important that the spaces be on the campus and not in the community. You know, we felt it was just important to our neighbors to be able to say that we were quarantining students on campus.

(2:57) OP: And, at least in the beginning, before vaccines were readily available, how did you find people that were willing to work in isolation and quarantine dorms? 

(3:06) RW: This was hard, I mean we certainly have a lot of frontline staff. Our housekeepers have been incredible throughout all this and residential life, our dining team or Res Life team. We hired a person in residential life very early on during the summer to manage our quarantine and isolation housing. That was important for us to be able to do that and you know, we really focused on education and training, talking about how to, you know, for housekeepers, in particular, you know, making sure that they had adequate PPE, for those who are going into the spaces and adequate training on cleaning those spaces, as well as just making sure they understood and were able to ask questions from our physicians about how COVID spreads so that they could make decisions about their own safety as they were working in spaces.

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(4:06) JA: All the planning proved necessary when students started testing positive for COVID after arriving on campus. Though there were only 12 cases between undergrad and graduate students at the start of the fall semester, more and more students started testing positive around Thanksgiving.   

Dr. Steve Lawrence is a professor of infectious disease at the Washington University School of Medicine, and was a part of the team that decided on testing policies at the start of the fall semester. 

At the beginning of the year, doctors predicted the infection rate as r-naught equals 2.5—really high. This means that for every person who tested positive for COVID, they would transmit it to about two and a half other people, given that their surrounding population is susceptible to infection. 

(4:50) Steve Lawrence: With that assumption, the conclusion was that there would need to be testing done once or twice a week to be able to detect cases quickly enough to prevent uncontrolled spread.

(5:02) JA: Yet Dr. Lawrence, along with the rest of the medical team, re-calculated the transmission numbers factoring in things such as universal masking, classroom distancing, and smaller, outdoor gatherings. They settled on a testing plan that was way lower than originally suggested—only once per every two weeks. 

(5:19) SL: And it turns out that in our estimates of what transmission occurred on campus during both the fall semester and in the spring semester, that that transmission rate or the reproduction number, r, was consistently below one, which allowed us to be able to do the frequency of testing of every two weeks that was adequate to prevent uncontrolled outbreaks on campus.

(5:49) OP: Though Dr. Lawrence acknowledged a spike on campus during the winter months, when testing was ramped up to include an optional test per week, he said that the medical team felt pretty good about their overall testing plan. Yet Dr. Lawrence also cautioned against too much trust in a negative COVID test result. 

(6:06) SL: The limitations, with the surveillance testing window, which we had to realize ourselves and then also wanted to communicate through the year where that when you’re testing somebody who doesn’t have symptoms… a negative test is only telling you what the situation is at that exact time and that it’s very possible that people who are incubating infection, in other words, they are exposed a day before, but they haven’t yet had enough virus that is replicating or reproducing within the cells in the nose and the mouth, to be able to be detected yet. Then they could essentially have turned positive the next day, and you would miss it. 

(6:55) JA: So with each positive case, a handful of other students are put into quarantine through the University’s contract-tracing system. Some days, I refreshed the dashboard like I do NBA scores, hoping that we would see good news, a win, a decline in cases if you will. Other days, ignorance is bliss.

(7:12) OP: Freshman Danny Ecker received that exact contact tracing call in early February, after his suitemate tested positive for the virus. 

(7:25) Danny Ecker: “You know you kind of like go through this year, and we obviously are all aware of, like the risk of being here, and the risk of like testing positive anytime but you don’t really realize the magnitude of the situation or understand I guess how crazy it actually is until someone close to you tests positive.”

(7:39) OP: Hearing the news that you’re going to have to move into quarantine is never easy, and Ecker was immediately worried about both the physical and the social ramifications of being traced. 

(7:48) DE: The main thing was just like missing out on being in person class or missing out on just walking and meeting people and I guess like just in general, having to isolate by yourself. It was honestly just a mix between the feelings of like trying to get over the fact that I’m missing out for two weeks and missing what college is like and then I’m also worried at the same time to maybe I’m going to test positive in the next couple days. 

(8:14) OP: Ecker was in Nemerov for two weeks, during which he buckled down and focused on schoolwork, called friends, and drew out detailed schedules for his day. 

(8:23) DE: There were definitely times where here were definitely times like where there were days, where it’s just you it’s hard to cope more than others because the like no interaction face to face whatsoever kind of got to you, especially given the fact that you couldn’t leave this like 10 foot by 10 foot box, really 20 feet by 20 foot box of the room.

(8:41) JA: Though they fall under the same logistic planning, and are often said in the same breath, quarantine and isolation housing are two completely separate ball games. In isolation housing, you are sick, with a confirmed to have COVID. As a result, many students report feeling lousy, and less motivated to get work done. Yet you may in fact not be isolated, since positive students can request to live with each other in isolation housing. 

(9:08) OP: Just 10 short days after being released from quarantine housing, Ecker got another call –– this time, to inform him that he himself had tested positive. He was flooded with emotion –– panic, then resignation. Ecker reported feeling low energy, with COVID’s typical cough and cold-like symptoms.

(9:27) DE: “I actually have asthma, so definitely a higher risk when I get COVID. So definitely at first, very scared.” 

(9:37) OP: Overall, however, Ecker found that his second stint in housing wasn’t as bad as his first, at least in terms of social isolation. 

(9:45) DE: “It was definitely a lot better of a situation because I was living with two other kids that tested positive as well, so it was the three of us living in Millbrook which was, I mean a very nice apartment so it was definitely a lot easier to cope with isolation.

(10:05) OP: Ecker spent ten days in isolation housing, and came out with a new appreciation of the freedom to move around campus, temporary immunity to COVID-19, and an urge to forget the whole experience ever happened. 

(10:15) DE: 34:51 “When I came right out I got right back into my routine and kind of just forgot that it happened and moved on.” 

(10:24) JA: However, despite all the people that were in quarantine and isolation housing at one point or another, there is light at the end of the tunnel, in the form of three vaccines that have become household names—Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, and Moderna. Wash. U. originally started vaccinating students on April 8th with the J&J, or Johnson and Johnson vaccine, yet switched to Pfizer on the 16th following the pause on J&J nationwide, as reported by Student Life. 

(10:53) OP: Cases have also been noticeably low on campus—when I talked to Dr. Lawrence on April 28th, there was a singular undergrad COVID case on the Danforth Campus Dashboard. Since then, there have been a couple more. However, Lawrence is thrilled by the drop in positives, but doesn’t attribute it all to vaccination just yet. 

(11:10) SL: So part of this is just ongoing and continued good adherence to the mitigation measures. Vaccination is playing a role, but we don’t yet have enough of the student population vaccinated to probably account for this drop all by itself. It is probably contributing, but we still… You really don’t start to see significant drops in the population levels until you’re really pushing 40-50% or so of that population that’s been vaccinated. We don’t think that there’s been a high enough proportion to lead to the drop in cases that you know just from vaccination alone, even if it’s contributing some. 

(12:00) OP: Freshman Jess Gordon got her first vaccine at the end of March. Since she is a camp counselor, she was in Tier 1B in the state of Missouri. After her second dose, three weeks later, Gordon had pretty bad side effects, including a fever, vomiting, and chills. Still, Gordon was relieved to have been vaccinated. 

(12:21) Gordon: I was just excited that I was having these side effects, instead of getting COVID because I actually had taken like one of the school COVID tests the day before, so I was lying on my couch in my common room like dripping sweat, very feverish and part of me was like ‘what if I actually got COVID?’ I know like people have side effects from the vaccine, but it was more severe than most people that I talked to and also lasted longer so I was a little worried, but I got a negative test, while I was lying there and I was like this is just so ridiculous but i’m so glad that I’m doing this because it’s worth it.

(12:53) OP: Washington University recently announced a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for fall of 2021. Dr. Lawrence said that even with the majority of students vaccinated, restrictions will be lifted gradually. Larger gatherings will resume, as well as more in-person class and activities. Masking indoors will likely be the last thing to go. Gordon, for one, was really pleased with the mandate. 

(13:18) JG:  I was so happy about it, like, I know there are definitely some like issue there so like allowing people to opt out for medical reasons and religious reasons, so I feel like that being said, the majority of the student body being vaccinated I think is really, really important and I’m hopefully excited to have like a more normal college experience.

(13:35) OP: Dr. Lawrence was similarly thrilled to have required mass vaccination, and said that better days were coming. 

(13:43) SL: Once vaccine is firmly entrenched and the vast, vast majority, nearly everybody is vaccinated, we will see a corresponding drop in the levels of transmission to the point where the risk of infection, even to any residual unvaccinated individuals, or the risk of breakthrough infection which can occur and those who have been vaccinated when those risks, then become super super low then we will not have to use these other mitigation measures. 

(14:19) JA: More recently, the University announced that the risk level on campus has moved down from orange to yellow. The dashboard reads, “Conditions on campus have significantly improved, with a decreasing number of cases and lower levels of community spread of COVID-19.” The University also noted that in groups of 30 or fewer, fully vaccinated people do not need to wear masks. 

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(14:43) JA: We repeatedly attempted to contact Habif Health and Wellness for comment on the logistics of organizing housing, but were declined interviews from administrators of their team. But hopefully next year, quarantine and isolation dorms won’t be necessary––not as newsworthy. This experience, while unpleasant, will be unique to only a few months from 2020 and 2021. And for us at Looking Back, we will continue to explore the ins and outs of Wash. U.’s pandemic era, good or bad. So until next time, stay with us.

You can listen to the third episode of Looking Back here.

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