Inside COVID isolation at UVM: reporter recounts surreal stay with no masks and limited supervision
February 23, 2021
Editor’s note: This piece takes on a different form of journalism Cynic readers may not be accustomed to. Read the letter from the Editor-in-Chief here to learn more.
Since this past fall semester, I’ve been reporting and documenting COVID-19 on UVM’s campus as my area of focus for coverage as a news writer for the Cynic.
Up until two weeks ago, I was on the outside looking in, reporting on how COVID-19 was impacting my community.
Then I started to feel a little sick.
On the afternoon of Feb. 4, as I scrambled to pack up my things, I looked out my window and saw that a big black van had pulled up to my dorm, Coolidge Hall. The van was waiting for me.
Being contact traced felt surreal and scary, but I also knew this would be an interesting way to get first-hand insight into the way things are run inside the pandemic housing facilities.
I had other Cynic staff drop off a digital camera to take with me right before getting picked up by Student Health Services.
My friends and I walked down the hall and into the van. A piece of plexiglass separated us from the nurse who drove us.
The nurse was Dana Braunegg. I knew who Braunegg was because I had tried to reach her in early November by email for a story I was writing about what it was like in the quarantine facility, but I received no reply.
This time though, as a student on the inside, I had the opportunity to hear from her directly about how things were run.
We had been contact traced earlier that same day and were on our way to UVM’s quarantine building, Jeanne Mance.
By the time we arrived at Jeanne Mance, I was certain I had the virus. Throughout that day I had developed a sore throat, a bit of a cough and body aches. My eyes hurt when I turned them.
When we moved into Jeanne Mance, Braunegg gave us the run-down on how things would work in quarantine. We were to stay in our rooms, only leaving to use the bathroom and get meals, which we were to eat alone in our rooms.
Everyone was given either a single or the option to live with the person who was already their roommate if two roommates were contact traced.
However, Braunegg warned folks that if one roommate was positive at the beginning of their stay, the other could get COVID-19 eventually and would be forced to have their stay extended.
“I’ve had people who have been in here for upwards of 25-27 days,” she said.
You may see other people who are choosing not to follow those rules—that is on them. They are not a risk to you if you are doing as I’m asking and I can only do something about that if I am visually seeing it.”
— SHS Nurse Dana Braunegg
However, when I followed up with UVM spokesperson Enrique Corredera about this, he said the University is not aware of any circumstances that would result in quarantine or isolation stays of nearly a month.
Braunegg assured us of our little risk to exposure.
“I like to give the ‘you’re an adult, I’m an adult’ conversation,” she said. “Which leads me to my next conversation of the ‘stay-in-your-lane’ conversation… If you are doing exactly as I’m asking… you have no risk of exposure.”
She also said there is no use in reporting rule-breaking to her.
“You may see other people who are choosing not to follow those rules—that is on them,” she said. “They are not a risk to you if you are doing as I’m asking and I can only do something about that if I am visually seeing it.”
I heard several voices yelling and laughing in the hall outside my bedroom door that night.
The next day, we got tested at a trailer right outside of the Student Health Center, which was a short walk down the sidewalk and across the street.
Despite the trailer’s proximity to Jeanne Mance, when I went there it felt strange to be out in public walking down the road past unknowing strangers with nothing but a thin piece of fabric separating me from them. I tried to hold my breath.
A nurse from SHS gave me a rapid antigen test, a PCR test and then an additional test for the new coronavirus variant.
The nurse who administered these tests told me on Feb. 5 that this was the first day they started swabbing students for the variant. They do so selectively, based on a set of criteria, Braunegg said.
However, when I contacted SHS in an attempt to obtain my results, they said they tossed that swab because it was not selected for analysis.
“The department of health is allotted a limited number of samples to send to Massachusetts each week for a whole genomic sequencing and opted not to send samples from the cluster that you were a part of,’” stated an SHS nurse, Anne Desmond, in a UVM MyWellbeing secure message to me.
She was passing along this quote from her Medical Director, she said.
Only a few minutes after getting back to my room, after all three swabs, I got a call confirming my suspicions that I had the virus.
My rapid antigen test was positive, and a few days after being moved to isolation housing, I got a confirmation that my PCR test was positive too.
Once again, I packed my things and got into the big black van. They took me to Slade Hall, where students who have tested positive go until 10 days after symptom onset, at which point they are deemed no longer contagious.
Braunegg is the Jeanne Mance live-in nurse, and the official from SHS who is the most involved in staffing and nursing at all three facilities: for students in quarantine at Jeanne Mance, and students in isolation at Slade on the other side of campus and the Trinity Cottages.
“We honestly weren’t expecting to be using this building so quick,” Braunegg said, about Slade.
Five days later, on Feb. 10, we discovered the building had filled up. A new person was standing in the hallway with his things that afternoon, waiting on someone else to move out.
I took a lap around Slade and realized that there really were no rooms left available.
At that point, new cases were being sent to the Cottages, which serve as additional housing for students who test positive, according to Nancy, an SHS official.
“To be honest, we’re expecting a higher volume of positives [this semester],” Braunegg said. “I think that people are having COVID fatigue.”
Already on Feb. 4, Jeanne Mance was close to capacity, Braunegg said.
“More than half—actually more than three quarters [full],” she said.
When I asked Corredera about this, he said UVM has never reached capacity in isolation and quarantine facilities, but out of an abundance of caution has increased the number of rooms available.
The day I was moved to Slade, Braunegg gave me a breakdown of the rules and where the school had experienced issues over the course of the fall semester– like students in isolation housing leaving to go back to their dining halls and residence halls, Braunegg said.
“We have experienced a high volume of students trying to go back to their rooms, you could check swiped cards, people were swiping into their dining hall when they’re supposed to be here, that sort of thing,” she said.
However, she told me she is unable to do anything about rule-breaking unless she sees it.
We have experienced a high volume of students trying to go back to their rooms, you could check swiped cards, people were swiping into their dining hall when they’re supposed to be here, that sort of thing.”
— SHS Nurse Dana Braunegg
“I will say that the highest person at ResLife’s office window literally looks right out at this building, they’ve already noted an issue of students coming in and out of it, not students in here,” she said. “Again, I can only do something if I see it happening, but you guys are young adults and you are choosing to do that decision.”
Corredera said UVM changed its procedures this semester to address this, by preventing students in isolation and quarantine from being able to access facilities with their CatCard.
Although our official contracts and the UVM website stipulate that students in isolation should “wear a mask whenever you open your door or go to the bathroom,” and “not leave your designated space for any reason,” Braunegg told us all that it was not necessary for us to mask or distance in Slade.
“The consolation prize to a COVID diagnosis is that the worst has happened,” Braunegg said. “You can’t get COVID worse during the time that you have it so you are allowed to hang out, you do not need to wear a mask unless there is staff present in the building.”
I asked her if we should be worried about how effective our antibodies are against getting the virus a second time.
“The medical director has indicated to me that there is no concern surrounding the possibility of [cyclically infecting one another],” she said. “But you have to do whatever you feel comfortable with.”
I also asked if we should be worried about taking precautions against infecting students who received false-positive tests.
The consolation prize to a COVID diagnosis is that the worst has happened. You can’t get COVID worse during the time that you have it so you are allowed to hang out, you do not need to wear a mask unless there is staff present in the building.”
— SHS Nurse Dana Braunegg
“When we do the PCR test, that is so effective that the lab would literally have to admit that they damaged the sample or there was an equipment error for it to be falsely positive,” she said. “We did have an issue with it last semester, it happened in one unit of testing.”
During the fall, there was a batch of seven positives that was later that night declared invalid, she said. But she held firm in the sentiment that it was okay not to mask in Slade.
There were two students I met in Slade during my stay, who suspected they had been false positives. One of them got a call midway through his stay from SHS saying his suspicions might be true.
He told several of us this information, as we all stood with him in the hall, not one mask insight. Everyone but him was, for certain, infected. He later took a new COVID-19 test and was moved to the Cottages.
A week later on Feb. 11, two other SHS employees, Nancy and Morgan, held a meeting for all Slade residents, during which they said they would need to change the rule: masking and distancing were once again required.
This announcement was made on the same day that news broke of the variant strain being detected in Vermont wastewater. Nancy and Morgan did not mention this to us, but they did express concerns over whether or not antibodies from one strain can defend against the other.
“I just think going forward we just had to rethink this because we just don’t know what’s going on out there,” she said. “This semester compared to last semester, we’re having a lot more symptomatics and obviously a lot more positives with symptoms versus last semester, very few had symptoms.”
Corredera emphasized to me in the Feb. 22 email that the school’s public health response will not change as a result of emerging more contagious variants.
I had a few friends from the same round of contact tracing who also tested positive, two of whom are roommates. One of them received a call from SHS that day to say that they had both tested positive, asking her to pass the message along to her roommate.
We were confused as to why the roommate was not directly contacted; based on the protocols outlined in HIPAA, it should be illegal for SHS to release her medical information to someone else.
Another person in my group of exposure was not picked up by SHS after being contact-traced.
The van was supposed to get her the day she was traced, but she said it never showed up. She was not contacted again by SHS until the second to last day of what should have been her stay in Jeanne Mance.
During my stay in Slade, I recalled another piece of information that Braunegg had given me.
“You will see Rich the cleaner, he wears a spacesuit. I think you might’ve seen him over at Jeanne Mance, anyway, he wears a suit that literally covers his entire face – if you see him you could courteously put on a mask but to be honest, he’s very very safe.”
It was true. The only person aside from SHS staff I ever saw in the building was a man in what looked like a spacesuit.
The scene felt apocalyptic as if I were a specimen in a sci-fi movie.
“Isn’t it crazy that we are literally the reason he’s wearing that thing,” a friend said to me one day when he walked by us on the stairwell.
On Feb. 14, after days of living a life that felt surreal at best, the big black van pulled up to get me for a third and final time. I got in, gladly this time, ready to go home and go back to my real life once again.