LETTER FROM THE EDITOR: A student’s perspective on quarantine at Brandeis
Upon my arrival to campus this semester, I was prepared for the possibility that I might be required to quarantine or isolate due to COVID-19. What I did not expect, however, was to be one of the students affected by the varicella outbreak that occurred a couple of weeks ago on campus.
On Oct. 1, I received an email from the Brandeis Health Center informing me that I had been exposed to varicella, also known as chickenpox, between Sept. 16 and Sept. 27. The email asked students to report any symptoms that could be caused by the virus including fever, chills, cough and/or a pox-like rash. The email also stated that the varicella vaccine was one of the many vaccinations required by Brandeis and that the likelihood that vaccinated individuals would develop symptoms of the disease was low. That weekend, I experienced all but one of the symptoms in the email. On Sunday, seeing very little improvement in my symptoms, I called the emergency number for the Health Center and reported my situation to the nurse on call. I was asked to isolate myself as much as possible and come in Monday morning for an assessment. That day, I avoided contact with my suitemates, friends and other members of the Brandeis community. On Monday, I felt considerably better. I attended my appointment, convinced that the staff at the Health Center would clear me and allow me to return to my normal activities. However, despite my vaccination status and the improvement of my symptoms, I was immediately told I would need to quarantine. I was given no details regarding the length of the quarantine or where I would be staying. All I was told was to pack a bag and await a phone call from the Brandeis Contact Tracing Program and the Department of Community Living. I did my absolute best to cooperate with all parties involved, understanding that the decision to place me in quarantine was rooted in an attempt to keep those around me safe.
Shortly after I returned to my dorm room, I received a call from the BCTP. I was asked to provide a detailed list of all of my interactions starting four days before my first symptom. After a 40-minute phone call, I still had no information regarding the details of my quarantine. I expressed my concerns about dietary restrictions, class attendance/participation and access to certain resources to the person that contacted me. While they were unable to provide any answers, they assured me that I would receive more information after the University had established a plan with the Massachusetts Health Department. Within two hours of the call from the BCTP, I received a call from DCL letting me know that I would be staying at the Faculty Lodge. The Area Coordinator that called me was, like the rest of the individuals I had already talked to, unable to provide any useful information. At that point, I realized that, understandably, there were a lot of unknowns in regards to the situation. I trusted that the University would promptly communicate any relevant information as it became available. Unfortunately, this was not the case.
I spent the first three days trying to explain my situation to professors and working with them to find ways to make up schoolwork. It was extremely difficult to make any arrangements without having a clear timeline. Most of my professors proposed conditional agreements, emphasizing that missing one week of class was not the same as missing two, or even three. This, of course, did not help the feelings of anxiety and desperation that I was already overwhelmed with, which were further amplified by the lack of communication from the departments in charge of my case. On Oct. 7, my fourth day in quarantine, I received an email from the Health Center. It was a check-in email to make sure my symptoms had not gotten any worse. Eager for answers, I emailed them back asking if they had any new information about how long I was supposed to stay isolated. The reply I received further showed me that there was a complete breakdown in communication between the Health Center, DCL and the BCTP. Per the staff member that responded to my email, the BCTP already knew how long I would need to remain in quarantine. I was told to reach out to them for that information. I was confused as to why the Health Center could not simply tell me, considering that they evidently already knew. Regardless, I awaited the call from the BCTP--who called me every other day--but was surprised to learn that they did not have an update for me, despite what I had been told by the Health Center. Apparently, only a select few members of the BCTP had knowledge about the length of my stay. It was bizarre to learn that even within the same department, there were major gaps in communication. After multiple calls with the BCTP, they let me know that I would be free to leave on Oct. 15, 11 days after I had been placed in quarantine.
With a date to look forward to, I tried my best to settle into a new routine. Still, the isolation took a larger toll on my mental health than I expected. The only sign of human life came from the daily knock on my door from the dining staff informing me that food had been delivered. Despite the many FaceTime calls from friends and family, the loneliness was unbearable. Just when everything seemed slightly more manageable, I experienced what is perhaps the best example of the issues with communication that plagues the University. On Saturday, Oct. 9, I called the dining hotline at 4 p.m. after waiting over 24 hours for food delivery. At first, I thought they were simply behind on schedule. I waited for that familiar knock on the door and tried eating snacks in the meantime. Eventually, I started to question whether anything would be delivered. When I called to ask about what had happened, I was told that I had been removed from the list of students in quarantine, and therefore, could not receive any food. I quickly checked my campus passport, wondering if there had been a misunderstanding and I was actually released from quarantine. My passport was still gray. Dining had no answers to my questions and did not offer to give me any food. Instead, they recommended that I find out who had removed me from the list. Frustrated and hungry, I felt the urge to leave immediately. I called my family and friends, desperately trying to find the strength to stay put and try to resolve the situation. I had no idea who to call. It was a Saturday afternoon, so most staff members that would be available during the week were at home. I could only think to call the emergency line for the Health Center. The nurse on call was sympathetic to my situation and asked me to email the Dean of Students Office, claiming that they would respond to my email within an hour. She also relayed my situation to the BCTP, who then called me to gain more insight. The person I spoke to could not figure out who had removed me from the list and promised to get me back on it as soon as possible. I received dinner, my only meal of the day, at around 7 p.m. The DSO did not get back to me until Monday. While I understand that all systems are imperfect, this situation was inexcusable. What made it worse was that even though my most basic human needs were not being met by the University, I was still expected to function as a normal student by my professors.
When Oct. 15 finally arrived, I experienced another issue with communication. I was told by the BCTP to call DCL to arrange my departure from the Faculty Lodge. Unsurprisingly, the person I spoke to in DCL had not received notice that my quarantine was over, so they were unable to provide me with any information. After multiple email exchanges with the BCTP, DCL finally became aware of my release even though the date had been set for almost eight days at that point. I did not have any concrete information about the check-out process until around 8 p.m. on Oct.14 when the AC on-call reached out to me.
From start to finish, the situation was dire and appalling. To this day, my case was never confirmed. My symptoms disappeared completely on the fifth day, suggesting that I probably had a common cold. Evidently, the departments in charge of overseeing the quarantine process did not effectively communicate with one another. Instead, they relied on me to mediate conversations and gather basic information about the situation, not realizing that the back and forth between departments made an already stressful situation even more unmanageable. Looking back on it now, a week and a half after being back on campus, I am horrified, as are most people I have shared my story with, by their handling of my case. Brandeis can’t expect students to report any symptoms (of COVID-19 or otherwise) when they are unable to provide students in quarantine with the basic resources they need to function as human beings. I walk out of this situation with nothing but fear of ever finding myself in a similar position and profound disappointment in the University.
—Editor’s note: Editor Cameron Cushing is a DCL community advisor and did not report or edit this story.