Reflections from Quarantine: Why Brandeis should reconsider the quarantine policy
On Thursday night, March 3, I found out that I had been placed in quarantine. I had not received any communication, but rather found out because I tried going to Sherman for dinner and saw that my passport was gray. This was the first of many issues and missteps with the University’s quarantine policies. I was glad that I could at least commiserate about quarantine with a bunch of friends who happened to be in quarantine at the same time. Here are my thoughts on quarantine and the University’s policies.
The biggest issue with these policies is the idea of quarantine itself. According to the CDC, as of Jan. 27, as long as you are boosted and are asymptomatic, you are free to go about your daily life as long as you are wearing a mask. According to Brandeis procedures, besides getting food ordered from Upper Usdan, you can not leave your room at all unless you have to go to the health center. That is not quarantining; that is isolation. One of my friends asked if she could take her trash out to the dumpster, and they said no. Why can’t we go on a walk while wearing a mask? What is the difference between going to the shipping container outside of Usdan and taking a walk around Loop Road? If you time it correctly, you will probably run into fewer people walking on Loop Road than getting food. Besides the obvious question of why one has to quarantine at all at this point, there is no practical difference between quarantine and isolation.
There is also an issue for those students who keep kosher while in quarantine because the only Upper Usdan option is Louis’ Deli. Due to the limited options at Louis’, many students are forced to eat sandwiches for all three meals of the day. It is also a problem that Louis’ does not open until 11 a.m., which is too late for breakfast. I thank God for my friends that rallied around those of us in quarantine, getting us stuff from the Hoot Market and off campus, because it is absurd that we are expected to eat deli for three meals a day for up to five days.
The core of my critique is the University’s response to concerns about mental health. Being put in near isolation for five days just because we might get COVID-19 not only is it unreasonable, but it is also dangerous. While I was lucky that my mental health did not drastically suffer during my five days in quarantine, I can not say the same about some of my friends. One of them texted me: “The damage to mental health is simply not worth the extra unnecessary caution.” Another friend who was in quarantine at the same time as me expressed a similar sentiment: “I think the University should take into account not just physical health but also mental health. Given the low likelihood of a close contact testing positive at this point, and [sic] even lower likelihood of a close contact becoming seriously ill, it seems to me there is less danger when it comes to physical health than there is with the mental health challenges that arise for the students in quarantine.”
One of the most condescending emails I have ever received was sent out on March 10, by the University. The Assistant Vice President for Student Engagement and Campus Life and the Dean of Students had the audacity to say that despite numerous complaints about the policy, it is staying the same and threatened disciplinary action for certain behaviors. “We are writing today to remind you that at Brandeis, those identified as COVID-19 close contacts must quarantine, without exception…This kind of behavior [written about below] is unacceptable and subject to further action as outlined in Rights & Responsibilities, and more importantly, it only serves to harm our community…”
The email did not differentiate between those students who tried to get out of quarantine because they were bored or for social reasons and those who tried to get in contact with the Contact Tracing team because they had proof they had not been in close contact with the person that put them in quarantine: “Our team is receiving complaints from students stating they do not meet the requirements of a close contact, fielding student demands to be released from quarantine early in order to accommodate their social schedules.” Those are two very different circumstances and should not have been grouped together by saying that students are trying to get out of quarantine. The email emphasized both the rise in cases in recent weeks and talks about how restrictions were just lifted. As of March 10, there were 118 people in quarantine. Considering the high positivity rate on campus, why did the University decide to enact more lenient policies? It is not a coincidence that these are happening at the same time, and that should be looked into. Also, the email at no point mentioned the reason for keeping this quarantine policy. Isolation for testing positive is one thing, and if a close contact starts being symptomatic is another thing, but an asymptomatic close contact should be able to go about their business just while wearing a mask. Of course, people should be notified if they are close contacts, but the next step should be that they monitor their symptoms and wear a mask, not isolate themselves in their rooms besides picking up food for five days.
Lastly, I want to talk about how the University’s COVID-19 policies make no sense in the larger scheme. According to the University guidelines, this is what the definition of close contact is: coming within six feet of an infected or probably infected person for at least 15 minutes within a 24-hour period starting from two days before illness onset or, for asymptomatic patients, two days prior to positive specimen collection until the time the patient is isolated. There is no mention of whether it matters if the people involved were masked or not, which is a direct contradiction with health guidelines put out by the CDC and Massachusetts Department of Health. But by taking away the mask mandate, the University is exposing so many more people to possibly testing positive. If the mask mandate changes, so should the quarantine policy. Otherwise, the school is letting many more people be designated as close contacts, putting their mental health at risk for no scientific reason. It is also the case that we should not have both taken away the masks policy while also reducing test frequency. It is theoretically possible for one to contract COVID-19 and recover from it all within the 168 hour window in which we now get tested.
At this University, it is harder to be in quarantine than in isolation because at least people check in on you when you are isolated. If the policies won’t change, there should at least be a commitment to actually check in on those in quarantine, not just with an automated email. This might at least help with some of the mental health issues people are facing in quarantine.
While my experience in quarantine was unremarkable, it is still unnatural to have been forced not to see anyone for five days. I urge the University, despite its recent email, to reconsider the quarantine policy, based both on scientific and mental health grounds.