While some students have mostly positive experiences with COVID-19 testing on Grounds, others are finding the experience to be frustrating.
The amount of students testing positive for coronavirus within the U.Va. community continues to rise. Since Aug. 17, at least 227 students have tested positive for COVID-19 at Student Health and Wellness or a U.Va. affiliated clinic.
Third-year College student Joelle Miller was not able to get a test from the University after calling into Student Health, despite the fact that her friend — who Miller had hung out with — had been in proximity with a person who had tested positive for the virus. When she called into Student Health, Miller was asked if she lived on or off Grounds and whether she was symptomatic.
“I'm just speculating, but I feel like the on Grounds or off Grounds question probably impacted whether I could get tested,” Miller said.
The University does not prioritize tests for students based on where they are housed, according to Wes Hester, deputy University spokesperson and director of media relations.
“There is no prioritization of testing of students based upon on-Grounds or off-Grounds living status at the Elson Student Health building,” Hester said. “However, that information is necessary to determine if a student needs on-Grounds quarantine or isolation housing.”
The University’s student quarantine and isolation spaces currently sit at five percent capacity, according to the COVID Tracker.
The University’s COVID Tracker does not differentiate test results from students who live on- or off-Grounds and does not include students who get tested at non-U.Va. affiliated clinics.
“It feels like maybe if I lived on-Grounds, they would have tested me because they feel like it's more of a immediate threat to dorm life, which kind of makes sense, but at the same time, it's harder to regulate off-Grounds students, so I don't know why they wouldn't be testing us as well,” Miller said.
When Miller questioned whether she could get one of the tests that the University had stated asymptomatic students could get once every 60 days, the Student Health representative stated that those tests weren’t yet available.
“He was like, ‘No, I don't actually know when we're going to start doing that, because we've had a huge surge in cases and in people who actually have symptoms and need to get tested, so we need to prioritize them,’” Miller recalled.
Second-year College student Jacob Moore took it upon himself to call Student Health and ask what the standards were to get tested.
The first time Moore called — during Student Health hours — the call went straight to voicemail. Moore eventually got a call back and was told students must be symptomatic or be exposed to a confirmed patient.
“I know that they had supply chain issues previously in the summer, but being a university that has this amazing hospital connected to it, you know, one of the best in Virginia, to me, I just feel like I expect way more from what they're doing in terms of testing,” Moore said.
In his email to the University community Aug. 4, University President James Ryan stated supply-chain issues for testing materials were part of the reason for the two week delay in resuming in-person classes.
“In Charlottesville and Albemarle County, we have seen an uptick in viral prevalence and transmission rates, and there has been some volatility in the supply-chain for testing materials,” Ryan wrote.
In a message sent to students July 16 about U.Va.’s COVID-19 public health plans, the University announced that students would be able to receive one asymptomatic test every 60 days.
“U.Va. students, faculty, staff and contract employees who do not exhibit symptoms but would like to be voluntarily tested will have the option to do so no more than once every 60 days, unless prior authorization is obtained from Employee Health or Student Health,” the email from Provost Liz Magill and Chief Operating Officer J. J. Davis said.
According to Hester, the LetsGetChecked pre-arrival testing currently counts as one of the asymptomatic tests provided to students.
“Students were all tested pre-arrival, so it has not yet been 60 days. We are currently using LetsGetChecked for asymptomatic voluntary testing,” Hester said.
The University recently announced that it will begin to conduct random and mandatory asymptomatic testing of students in order to better track COVID-19 within the student population. They also announced plans to begin saliva testing later in September.
Unable to get a test, Miller instead went to get tested at a CVS, which provides free testing, but doesn’t return results for three-to-five days — significantly longer than U.Va.’s wait times for results.
As of press time, U.Va.’s COVID Tracker advertises only a 17-hour wait time for test results, something second-year College student Cole Trautman acknowledged was a positive element of his experience.
“The two plus sides, I would say, were how quickly I was in and out of the [Student Health] Center, and then it came back with 18 hours later — so less than a day,” Trautman said.
Trautman, his three roommates and his girlfriend all got tested after they found out that someone who had gone into their off-Grounds apartment tested positive for COVID-19.
Trautman and his roommates went onto the Hoos Healthy website to set up what they thought was a testing appointment but was instead a 30-minute consultation on their symptoms.
“I've had to take COVID tests over the summer a few times, and so I know that usually you need to elaborate on your symptoms in order to qualify for one, but I forgot to tell that to the rest of my roommates,” Trautman said.
After all four roommates finished their calls, only Trautman qualified for a test that day — his roommates would have to wait an additional three days for a test.
“Everybody else in my apartment, despite having come in contact with a coronavirus positive person, weren't even given tests that day,” Trautman said.
Trautman’s personal experience getting his test wasn’t all that much better. When he was tested at the Student Health Center, Trautman described the testing process as efficient but callous. After getting into the facility, Trautman says he was led to a room, barely spoken to, and quickly given a throat swab.
“[The doctor] didn’t speak to me about the symptoms I was saying that I had over the phone, follow-up steps, what to do afterwards — you have to find all this stuff online. She didn't say anything to me,” Trautman said.
Trautman and Miller, who both took COVID-19 tests over the summer, said their advice to students would be to emphasize their symptoms to get a test.
“If you haven't had direct contact, but you're nervous and have had indirect contact, or you do have some symptoms, I would exaggerate a lot — that would be my advice,” Miller said.
Third-year Engineering student Kyle Thielsch had four of his five other roommates test positive for COVID-19 since arriving at his off-Grounds housing.
Thielsch had positive things to say about the turnaround time for getting tested.
“Each time that I've gotten tested, I've called, talked to a nurse and been able to go to the building and take my test in the span of like, two hours, two-and-a-half hours,” Thielsech said.
However, Thielsch and his roommates did encounter few issues. Thielsech said that when he got his first test results back, he was called twice and was told the exact same thing by two different Student Health representatives. Additionally, one roommate’s test was seemingly lost in the system.
“One of the guys, when he got tested Thursday, he didn't get his result back Friday. He didn't get it Saturday. He ended up calling Saturday afternoon or evening, or even maybe Sunday, because they hadn't done back to him yet, and I think his results got kind of lost,” Thielsech said.
As previously noted, U.Va.’s dashboard currently advertises a 17-hour wait time for test results.
Since testing positive, Thielsch and his roommates have been taking the precautions extremely seriously, wearing their masks in the home when they interact and trying to stay isolated in their rooms at all other times. However, Thielsch’s issues with his Internet connection have made distancing himself from his roommates difficult.
“The biggest issue is I can't really stay in my room because the WiFi in the house is really bad. And so the only place that I can really take Zoom calls is in the hallway, which gets the most traffic,” Thielsch said.
Thielsch, Trautman and Miller all say they’ve been following the University’s COVID-19 guidelines — not attending gatherings with more than 15 people and wearing their masks when in close contact with others. However, none of them feel optimistic about the planned return to Grounds.
In fact, none of the three thought the University would manage to hold in-person classes for the entire semester, let alone halfway through the semester.
Trautman and Miller both pointed to James Madison University’s recent shutdown.
“Well, I know that JMU just sent back all their on-Grounds housing a day after their refund period ends, so I'm assuming whenever our refund period ends, it would be very shortly after,” Trautman said.
This fall, undergraduate students will be refunded their tuition and fees in full if they withdrew within the first two weeks of classes. After the first two weeks, the University offers prorated refunds for students who withdraw within the first six weeks of classes.
Thielsch was similarly pessimistic about the University’s chances of staying open, especially as first years arrived this past week.
“I would definitely say by the end of September, they'll send people home because that'll give two-to-three weeks after the first years get back and you know, coronavirus can unfortunately run its course in the dorms,” Thielsch said.
Moore also thinks that in-person classes are destined to be cut short.
“You know, I think U.Va. kind of has this mindset that we're above all of that, which comes a little bit with the culture of the school, but I really do think that we're going to have to shut down,” Moore said.