Wastewater indicators have suggested potential COVID-19 infections in five first-year dormitories — Balz-Dobie, Lefevre, Echols, Kellogg and Hancock — so far, necessitating mandatory quarantines so that residents could comply with the University’s testing guidelines.
These dorm shutdowns can last up to 48 hours, depending on how long it takes to test all residents and relocate those with positive tests and close contacts to isolation and quarantine rooms. Once this process is completed, residents receive an “all-clear” message notifying them that they can leave their rooms and that the dorm-wide lockdown is over.
The Balz-Dobie dormitory was the first to be tested Sept. 15. The following day, the 114 residents of Lefevre dormitory were notified they would partake in asymptomatic prevalence testing, and all residents in Echols and Kellogg dormitories were quarantined and tested last Friday. Residents of Hancock were also notified Friday that the University identified 16 total cases in their building.
Testing revealed 15 total cases in Balz-Dobie, three in Lefevre, five in Echols and nine in Kellogg. These numbers do not include the two students in Kellogg and one student in Echols who tested positive during pre-arrival testing. The University clarified in a statement that individuals who tested positive during “pre-arrival testing do not meet the clinical definition of an active case.”
When a resident tests positive for COVID-19 or dorm wastewater samples — which are collected every 15 minutes by U.Va. Health and pooled over the course of 24 hours for testing — indicate the potential for cases of the virus, dorm residents receive a text notifying them to return to their rooms immediately for testing.
According to Wes Hester, deputy University spokesperson and director of media relations, testing teams then move door-to-door to test students individually. The current tests being used throughout residence halls are nasopharyngeal swabs, which collect samples from deep within the nasal cavity.
Residents are obligated to comply with testing if their dorm goes into quarantine, unless they have a medical reason for not getting tested, such as having tested positive for COVID-19 within the last 90 days.
Students under lockdown that leave their dorm during quarantine without explicit permission to do so are subject to disciplinary action by the University Judiciary Committee. Consequences may vary in severity depending upon a student’s offense, with interim suspension being a more extreme sanction.
After all residents have been tested, students receive a notification close to the time that their test results will be released through their Healthy Hoos Patient Portal. University Student Health and Wellness contacts students with positive tests by phone to inform them of the relocation process to University isolation and quarantine housing.
In Kellogg, residents updated each other about symptoms and positive cases via a group chat.
“When we got our results back, we all immediately texted [the hall group chat] saying we were negative,” first-year College student Ezzie Perez said.
Balz-Dobie has a similar group chat, which has been important for residents to stay up-to-date with new information that they don’t get directly from the University.
“We don’t want to stigmatize getting a positive result,” first-year College student Reed Williams said. “Whenever anyone hears news about [their test] they send a message into our group chat, so it’s really good for contact tracing.”
Joseph Ascoli, a first-year College student and resident of Balz-Dobie, was relocated to a quarantine room in a nearby Holiday Inn after indicating that he had been in close contact with a friend who tested positive for COVID-19. Ascoli said that he was surprised when he initially learned that Balz-Dobie residents would be put under temporary quarantine to undergo testing.
“There was definitely a lot of uncertainty for us students,” Ascoli said.
Ascoli said that he believes students are playing an important role in preventing the spread of the virus within first-year residence halls.
“I think for the most part, students have been following guidelines to the best of their ability,” Ascoli said.
He also said that he thinks the University’s response has been efficient — while in quarantine at the Holiday Inn, Ascoli said that he received periodic check-in emails and texts from the University.
Spencer Portuese, a first-year Engineering student in Balz-Dobie, has been in quarantine in the Home2 Suites hotel off-Grounds since Sept. 19, and will be released on Sept. 30.
Portuese uses the COVIDWISE app, Virginia’s contact-tracing app which traces exposure through Bluetooth. Portuese received both a notification from the app and a call from Student Health alerting him that he had been in contact with someone who tested positive.
“I was negative [after testing] ... after a day or two I got a call from a contact tracer [who said] we need you to isolate,” Portuese said.
The University did not test Portuese again after he was quarantined.
“[Student Health] at first told me I should get tested again … then they told me to get retested only if I show symptoms,” Portuese said.
The CDC recommends that close contacts of people infected with COVID-19 quarantine for 14 days after contact, even if they test negative for the virus throughout that period.
During quarantine, residents of Echols and Kellogg received meals from the dining halls, which were delivered to dorm lounges. Balz-Dobie residents were instructed to pick up their meals at an outdoor tent.
“The operational procedure of having us go get the food [felt] a little bit risky, but we [were] all masked and outside,” first-year College student Soven Bhagat said.
Hester said that Resident Advisors are notified that their dorm will be tested and quarantined temporarily in advance, so they are aware of the protocol and can provide assistance if needed.
“It’s a fast-moving process and the timing varies from dorm to dorm, but RAs hear in advance of their residents,” Hester said.
Despite confusion and anxiety that arose from the situation, residents have remained positive and optimistic.
First-year College student Luke Powers, who lives in Balz-Dobie, decided to put on a virtual concert in order to lighten the mood during quarantine. Powers has been playing the guitar for 4 years, and decided to livestream a song over Instagram.
“I thought it would be a good idea to raise the spirits of the dorm,” Powers said. “I opened my window and someone had linked a speaker and was playing my livestream so the whole dorm was listening in. It was good to hear people excited about something.”
Students have also handled the situation with humor, taking to social media to share their experiences. First-year College student Nickolaus Cabrera posted a video reviewing the breakfast residents were given on social media platform TikTok that has since amassed over 30 thousand views.
“I wanted to highlight the food being given to us and be honest about it … I honestly didn’t expect it to go viral, I was just making it for fun, really,” Cabrera said.
While spending time in quarantine may not be included in expectations of the college experience, students have tried to make the best of the situation. Communication and honesty have been key, Cabrera said.
“I think everyone here is being so open about symptoms and recent contacts,” Cabrera said. “I would encourage each and every one of us on Grounds to not be ashamed if you think you might have COVID-19. At the end of the day being proactive is what will keep us afloat.”
As of Wednesday, there are 778 cases of COVID-19 within the University community, 214 of which are active. Five percent of isolation rooms are occupied, while 29 percent of quarantine rooms are occupied.