As students return to Grounds ready for the fall semester, they may notice more of their friends and colleagues starting the semester with a cough, or maybe even a fever — common symptoms of COVID-19. Despite more than 95 percent of students being vaccinated, COVID-19 remains a concern among students, even as the University has scaled back certain accommodations such as the amount of on-Grounds isolation beds and testing availability.
Among the changes is a significant reduction in the availability of isolation housing for students who test positive. There will be no isolation dorms available this year except a very limited number — 30 beds — set aside for immunocompromised individuals and those with extenuating circumstances.
According to University spokesperson Bethanie Glover, students are now responsible for developing their own plan for isolation in the event of a positive test result.
“The University will not be providing isolation space for students living on or off-Grounds this year,” Glover said in an email statement to The Cavalier Daily. “Every University student must have a personal isolation plan, whether that is returning home or utilizing another location at their own expense, or self-isolating in their residence on/off Grounds.”
Although the vast majority of students are vaccinated, COVID-19 daily case averages in Albemarle County remain at a similar level to fall of last academic year. COVID-19 County Check labels the city of Charlottesville as having a high level of community cases.
The University discontinued the COVID-19 tracker this July. Even without a formal system to track cases, students have reported having COVID-19 since the beginning of the semester.
Third year College student Mina Dipaula, who recently had COVID-19 and isolated in her dorm, said that while she was able to isolate with relative ease, she is concerned that not all students will be able to safely isolate without the option of isolation housing.
“I'm lucky that in my situation I can isolate pretty easily at U.Va., but that's not true for everyone. Dipaula said. “And it's not really fair of U.Va to just be like, ‘if you can't isolate in your dorm room, then go home’ because not everyone can go home and not everyone has a home environment that they feel safe going back to and spreading COVID-19 there.”
Previously, students living on-Grounds who tested positive had the option to relocate to dorms designated as isolation locations. Students with symptoms could also quarantine in local hotels while awaiting test results.
Dipaula previously stayed in a designated quarantine dorm as a first-year student after experiencing an exposure to COVID-19 and said that if given the option, she would prefer to stay on Grounds again instead of being forced to quarantine at home. Dipaula added that isolating on Grounds, even in a single room, brought on a significant amount of stress from sharing a bathroom and making arrangements to access food.
“I have a fairly easy way to isolate here, but it is so much less anxiety-inducing to be able to just go to a place that you know is set up for that.” Dipaula said. “I didn't want to make other people sick, and even though I knew I could isolate fairly well, I still had to share a bathroom with two other people, and I was worried about how I am going to get food and all that kind of stuff.”
Second-year College student Saumya Sharma said that she personally feels comfortable with her isolation options, given that she recently had COVID-19 without complications, but agreed other students may face difficulties.
“I definitely feel like U.Va. has a really diverse population of students who are both in-state and out-of-state — much [fewer] international and out-of-state students, and international students really don't have the same accessibility to like moving off Grounds if they do have COVID-19,” Sharma said.
After contracting COVID-19 last week, first-year Engineering student Mitchell Palmer isolated in his shared dorm room, with his roommate forced to sleep in the lounge.
“It was more convenient than having to go somewhere else, but it kind of stinks that my roommate had to leave,” Palmer said.
Isolation guidelines provided by the University encourage students who test positive to wear a mask whenever they are around other people, reduce time outside of their rooms and attend classes virtually.
Certain COVID-19 restrictions — including mandatory masking and prevalence testing for unvaccinated students — were lifted in spring 2022 and have not been reinstated. Prevalence testing has not been required for vaccinated students since spring 2021. Masks are currently not required in classrooms, University spaces or public transportation.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently list Albemarle County as having a “medium” level of community spread, recommending that those with symptoms, a positive test or a possible COVID-19 exposure wear a mask. Additionally, the organization suggests that immunocompromised people contact their doctor about masking guidance.
The University also phased out saliva testing for asymptomatic students last spring.
Currently, PCR testing is available at Student Health for students who are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 or who have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19. Rapid antigen at-home tests are available for purchase at several locations around Grounds and in the community. Students’ insurance will be billed for the cost of a PCR test at SHW.
Previously, students nervous about symptoms or a potential exposure could order free tests through the federal government, but this program ended Sept. 2.
Sharma said that she’s noticed students facing longer waits for University COVID-19 tests since the beginning of fall semester.
“I have a lot of friends who've been trying to get tested because of exposure, and they've been … turned away because they’re not qualifying for enough exposure to get tested,” Sharma said. “So that's kind of scary, as someone who has … family members that are immunocompromised.”
Although few formal accommodations remain in place for COVID-19 positive students, Glover encouraged students to communicate closely with professors regarding any absences. Additionally, University psychological services can provide virtual emotional support to students in isolation.
“We realize that a positive COVID-19 test is challenging, particularly if a person is feeling unwell and has to isolate,” Glover said. “Counseling and Psychological Services are available to provide remote support for students' mental well-being. Students should contact their professors to make arrangements for missed work.”