‘If I just walked out and left, no one would know’: Students detail lax rules, miscommunication in Pitt’s quarantine housing

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Wu Caiyi | Senior Staff Photographer

Pitt has not disclosed the specific location of student quarantine and isolation housing.

By Rebecca Johnson and Rashi Ranjan

When J. lived in Pitt’s quarantine housing, they and a friend in the housing went on walks together outside, a violation of the University’s physical distancing rules.

J. asked to remain anonymous, due to fears of retaliation from the University.

“Since we tested negative, we decided we could go on walks at night since no one’s out on a Wednesday night,” the student said. “Even though we’re not technically allowed to do it, I figured if we tested negative, put on our masks and went at night at eight when no one’s out, we’d be fine.”

But J. said the violations didn’t stop there. They said while students in the housing were only allowed to leave to take out the trash, many other people had visitors, even whole families. They said most of the people visiting wore masks, though.

“I don’t know if we’re allowed to have people sit on the porch and talk to you, but Saturday during the day, pretty much everyone in isolation housing had someone on their porch talking to them,” they said. “I saw someone with their entire family — their parents and siblings talking to them outside.”

J. is just one of the dozens who have entered Pitt’s quarantine and isolation housing, where some of them described lax rules and little oversight that allowed them to skirt the University’s rules.

While the University doesn’t disclose the location of the housing, both the quarantine and isolation housing are at the same facility on campus. They are differentiated based on Pitt’s definition of “quarantine” and “isolation.” Quarantine is for a student who was exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID-19, whereas isolation is for a student who has tested positive.

Students who test positive for COVID-19 are required to enter isolation housing for 10 to 14 days or return home to isolate. Students who are directly exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID-19 have the option of entering University quarantine housing for 10 to 14 days or remaining in their residence halls. According to University data, Pitt has 14 students in isolation housing as of Tuesday. Students in quarantine are not included in this total.

J. said while they aren’t sure if visitors are technically allowed, they hope it continues so students in quarantine housing get human interaction.

“I don’t know if that’s technically allowed, but I definitely think they should continue to do that,” they said. “I don’t know how you can do this and not see humans, it’s so hard with just FaceTime.”

University spokesperson Pat McMahon said leaving the quarantine housing to go on walks or inviting visitors is not permitted behavior and that Pitt is reviewing data from Pitt ID entry swipes to work to ensure that this isn’t happening. 

He said Pitt prioritizes student health, so breaking a quarantine or isolation guideline could result in a Student Code of Conduct violation. He said such violations could lead to a student being barred from campus facilities or suspended for the semester. McMahon didn’t directly answer questions on if or how many students have received conduct violations for breaking these guidelines.

“Our residential staff are helping to ensure that students practice safe behaviors and quarantine successfully in the residence halls,” McMahon said. “Communicating guidelines and expectations related to the pandemic is an ongoing process.”

Jessica Salerno is the project coordinator for the MIDAS Coordination Center in Pittsburgh, a group that uses models to study infectious diseases, including the coronavirus. Salerno — who’s been working on the COVID-19 pandemic response since January, by studying the transmission and incubation period of the virus alongside the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — said there are serious impacts if someone breaks quarantine or isolation.

“The main potential consequence is they’ll expose it to someone else, especially someone in isolation,” Salerno said. “Talking to someone for even 10 to 15 minutes is enough to spread the virus because it’s largely airborne.”

Students said they were forced to potentially expose others before they even stepped foot in the housing. Emma Krapels, a first-year nursing major, said the University provided no transportation or moving carts when she moved into quarantine housing, so she had to carry all her belongings down Forbes and Fifth avenues.

“People were there eating dinner at Stack’d and there we were walking past with all of our luggage,” Krapels said. “If you can imagine carrying everything you might need for 14 days, things were falling.”

J. also said the University didn’t transport them to the housing, leaving them to carry two weeks of clothing, toiletries, school supplies, a pillow and a blanket in a laundry basket across campus.

“They don’t pick you up, so wherever you live, you have to carry all your stuff to the housing,” they said. “If I actually had corona and we had to walk down the street where Stack’d is and everything — where people are outside eating dinner — and I’m moving all my stuff down, like what is happening? It looked weird because everyone was staring at us.”

McMahon didn’t respond to specific questions about how students are transported to the housing.

Students, including Krapels, also detailed ignored dietary restrictions in the quarantine housing.

Even though the University gave her the option, Krapels said she chose to not quarantine in her residence hall because she was worried about sharing a bathroom with so many of her floormates.

Each room in the isolation and quarantine housing, on the other hand, contains its own bathroom, kitchen, a bedroom and two extra rooms. McMahon said students are also given medical supplies — such as a thermometer, throat lozenges and face coverings — as well as snacks and other supplies.

“[I] felt so uncomfortable sharing a bathroom with everyone on our floor just because if we did test positive, it’s so easy to transmit through the bathrooms,” Krapels said. “Even if you wear a mask, obviously you take it off to brush your teeth or take a shower.”

Krapels said she was exposed to someone with COVID-19 on Sept. 10, entered quarantine housing on Sept. 12 and left on Sept. 24. She did not test positive for COVID-19 during her stay.

Even if someone is quarantining, Salerno said it is still important they don’t have any contact with someone, including not sharing a bathroom. This is something she knows firsthand, after she tested positive for COVID-19 in August.

“Ideally for someone in either isolation or quarantine, you don’t want to be in contact with anybody. It can take up to 14 days for you to know you’re sick,” Salerno said. “I actually also had COVID in August, and I’m married, so my husband had exposure to me, so what I had to do is he slept somewhere else in the house and used a different bathroom.”

But that’s not what’s happening at Pitt — in fact, it’s just the opposite. When about 60 Litchfield Tower B students were required to quarantine in early October, McMahon said while quarantined students were sharing a bathroom, they were delivered meals daily to limit the amount they left their rooms. He said students who tested positive were moved to Pitt’s isolation housing located outside of Tower B.

Salerno said she recommends the University treat isolation and quarantine the same.

“If I were implementing something, I would make the restrictions the same, because you don’t know if someone in quarantine is going to develop symptoms or not,” Salerno said. “They should have their own bathroom and be brought their meals.”

Dr. John Williams, the head of Pitt’s COVID-19 Medical Response Office, said because there is little evidence of significant transmission from an environmental surface, such as a faucet handle in the bathroom, shared spaces are relatively safe as long as people wear masks.

“Almost all the spread has been shown to be person to person, so the biggest risk is if I and my suitemate are both in the bathroom at the same time and one of them is infected and we’re not masked,” Williams said. “The shared bathroom is not so much a risk as shared space without [people wearing] masks, so that is what is causing most of the transmission events.”

McMahon said the flexibility in quarantining is intentional and allows the response for each person to be decided by recommendations from medical staff and student preference.

“Individual circumstances vary, and responses and care are customized to meet the needs of each individual,” McMahon said. “These differences in responses are not a flaw in the system, but an intentional design, to allow us to be as responsive as possible.”

Some students said they saw few Pitt officials while in the housing, though. J. said no officials from the University physically checked in on them in the quarantine housing, instead making multiple daily phone calls.

“I am very convinced if I just walked out and left, no one would know,” they said. “I actually got an email from my RA asking if I still lived in [my residence hall]. She was like, ‘You haven’t swiped in for a week, are you still enrolled at Pitt?’ I feel like my RA should have known.”

Jessica Gondak, a first-year chemistry major, said she was impressed with how fast Student Health contacted her after she reported that she might have been exposed to COVID-19. Gondak entered quarantine housing on Sept. 5 after calling Student Health the same day the person she was exposed to tested positive. She said she believes she was exposed on Sept. 1. She received a COVID-19 test on Sept. 7, tested negative on Sept. 9 and left quarantine housing on Sept. 15.

“I moved in on the same day that I called Student Health to initially report my exposure, so it was probably within a few hours after I called that I was able to move into housing,” Gondak said. “So they moved really quickly, I was really impressed, I thought it would take a couple of days.”

But she said Student Health’s information regarding the length of her stay wasn’t as clear — when Gondak learned she tested negative for COVID-19 two days after entering the housing, she said she was looking forward to leaving.

“I had been previously told by the COVID team, ‘Once you test negative, I don’t see why you can’t leave,’” Gondak said. “But there seemed to be some inconsistencies with communication. When I was on the phone with Student Health the day I tested negative, they told me I had to finish my 14-day quarantine still.”

J. said the communication from the University about their release date was so confusing it led them to have a panic attack. They said they were originally told they were leaving on Sept. 19 — which would have only been eight days in quarantine — but then got a call on Sept. 15 saying their stay was extended to Sept. 25. They ended up leaving on Sept. 24.

J. said they voluntarily decided to go to Pitt’s quarantine housing after being directly exposed to a friend with COVID-19 on Sept. 10. They said they entered quarantine housing on Sept. 12 and left on Sept. 24 but did not test positive.

“I got a call on the 15th and they said you’re there until the 25th and like, I went into a full-blown anxiety attack freaking out,” they said. “The communication should have been better. If I knew right off the bat that I was staying until the 25th, I would have been prepared, but when my release date changed from four days to 10 days I was freaking out.”

Krapels also said she experienced a number of mental health challenges related to her depression while in quarantine housing.

“I have depression, so as soon as I found out [that I had to quarantine] from the lady that called me from contact tracing, I told her it’s not good for my mental health to stay inside,” Krapels said. “I see a therapist virtually, which is nice. Anytime I feel upset I just let her know, and she’s super good about it.”

Kathryn Roecklein, an associate professor of psychology, said she recommends exercising whenever possible, maintaining a daily schedule and using resources from the University Counseling Center to maintain good mental health while isolating or quarantining. She also recommends family and friends help their loved ones maintain their normal daily habits.

“Send care packages, call, text, write letters, all the normal things you’d do when someone is away at school,” Roecklein said. “I know that’s hard, so give yourself some grace, you’re doing the best you can in a difficult situation.”

McMahon said the University established a team of professionals from Student Health Service, [email protected], Student Affairs, Residence Life and Pitt Dining to care for students while in the housing. He also said because Pitt recognizes the toll quarantine and isolation housing can take on students, the University provides students with information for the Counseling Center, and Student Affairs started a campaign to remind students to check in — virtually — on their friends.

McMahon added that Student Health Service is the one contact students in isolation housing should rely on for their exit date and should call 412-383-1800 with any questions. He said a contact tracing team determines exit dates for students in quarantine and students should reach out to their contact tracer with questions.

Students said the contact tracing wasn’t simple, though. Krapels said while she participated in the program to the best of her ability, she felt pressured from some of her friends to not put their names down. To help contain an outbreak, the University requires everyone exposed to or who test positive for COVID-19 to participate in contact tracing.

“People were like, ‘Don’t put me down for contact tracing, I don’t want anyone to know,’” Krapels said.

J. said they felt a similar pressure from their friends.

“You have to say everyone you saw, where you saw them, how often because they go and clean that area. There’s a lot of pressure because if you put someone’s name down they have to quarantine for two weeks, no question,” they said. “I just put everyone’s name down, I didn’t care.”

Contact tracing is an important component of containing the virus, according to Salerno.

“Contact tracing is pretty widely used in an outbreak situation. You want to be able to follow where the virus is and stop it before it keeps going,” Salerno said. “The more we can find, the more we can trace transmission in the community.”

J. added that while they believe they could have potentially contracted COVID-19 on Sept. 10 — the day they think the person they were exposed to tested positive — they were unaware that their close contact tested positive. So they said they didn’t start quarantining until they entered quarantine housing on Sept. 12.

McMahon said he isn’t aware of any “routine delays” between test results and contact tracing but said it could take longer if individuals don’t “cooperate” with the contact tracing team.

McMahon also said for students who feel pressured to not list all their potential contacts, it is important to remember that all referrals are confidential and there is no disciplinary action associated with the information collected by the contact tracing team. He said data is stored by Student Health Service for students and Environmental Health and Safety for faculty and staff.
“By cooperating with our contact tracing teams, students are playing a vital role in helping to keep our community healthy and keep the spread of infection under control,” McMahon said. “Everyone deserves to know if they have been exposed to the virus — if possible — so that they can make decisions about their own health and protect their friends and family accordingly.”

Students did find some positives in the quarantine housing, though. Gondak said classes have been easier to attend while staying in the quarantine housing.

“The Internet here has been better than Wyndham’s — the apartment is huge, and I even have a kitchen,” Gondak said. “I’m sure my opinion would probably differ if I had a fever and was coughing, but for now, being in isolation has just turned into a fun story I can tell people.”

Krapels said she’s used the extra free time to FaceTime her friends and family and watch TikTok and Netflix.

“The first few weeks have been so busy I wasn’t calling or FaceTiming my friends from home so much or my family,” Krapels said. “It’s been nice to call them and check in on them.”

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