On Wednesday, April 20, Georgia Wluka, a first-year in the College, was turned away from Walker Museum when she walked in seeking a COVID-19 test. Wluka wasn’t alone. In the past few weeks, students have reported being turned away at Walker, several taking to Twitter to air their confusion and concern.
Wluka learned that she had been exposed to COVID-19 on Saturday, April 16, prompting her to seek a test from Walker on Monday, April 18. Her appointment went smoothly, and she received a negative test result. However, she subsequently learned that she had been exposed to other students who had tested positive.
Hoping to confirm that she remained negative, she walked into Walker to take a test on Wednesday of the same week. The worker at the front reception desk turned Wluka away even though Wluka told her that she had been exposed to multiple people who were positive for COVID-19.
“I think it’s because she particularly recognized me from [my test on] Monday,” Wluka said. “I don’t know if the workers there are paying attention to that sort of thing. I think the act of walk-in testing wasn’t an issue, but her recognizing me and saying, ‘You don’t need to be here again’ was a little interesting.”
“[The front desk worker] specifically said if you don’t have any symptoms and you’re vaccinated, you don’t need to come back until at least [next] Monday,” Wluka recounted. The following Monday would have marked nine days after her weekend exposure.
In an email exchange with The Maroon concerning the University’s COVID-19 policy, Associate Director for Public Affairs for the University Gerald McSwiggan wrote, “People who are known contacts of someone with COVID-19 must get tested at least 5 days after their last exposure. See the University’s exposure protocol. People who have been exposed (and are not symptomatic) can get tested at the Walker Museum.”
For the rest of the day on Wednesday, Wluka tried to limit her exposure to others. She planned to return to Walker on Thursday, hoping a different receptionist would be there instead.
“I got tested on Thursday, and that came back positive,” Wluka said. “My main concern there is that I was positive on Wednesday and would have tested positive and was walking around for a full extra day potentially exposing other people.”
Describing her experience to The Maroon as she isolated in her dorm room, Wluka said: “I trusted them and assumed that I probably wouldn’t have COVID if they said I didn’t need to get tested again. But I don’t know now.”
McSwiggan described Walker Museum’s testing policies in an email exchange with The Maroon: “The voluntary testing program is primarily intended to provide testing as often as once per week for those who choose to participate. More frequent testing may be limited by scheduling and availability. Some individuals have sought tests on successive days, which is generally not possible because PCR test results can take a day or longer to obtain.”
Wluka wasn’t the only student to experience confusion at Walker when trying to access exposure testing, reflecting a lack of communication between University officials and the student body around testing procedures.
Zhengyuan Ling, an A.M. student and the vice president of the Academic and Professional Fund of the Graduate Council, was turned away from Walker on Friday, April 22. Ling had been tested on Monday, April 18, but didn’t know that Walker staff were limiting tests to once a week. When he walked into receive a test, Ling said that a staff member recognized him and told him he could not receive a second test in the same week.
“I did not try to argue with the staff, as I knew it was not her who made the rule,” Ling wrote in an email to The Maroon on April 22. “I have no problem [with the fact] that, under normal conditions, students can be tested once per week as a means to conserve medical resources. But, in my case, I went today for a potential exposure test, and I think I should be eligible to receive it though I have had one on Monday.”
Reports of students’ getting turned away from Walker coincided with a campus-wide surge in COVID-19 cases that marked the return of isolation-in-place policies. During the week of April 15–21, 372 people tested positive, with 611 close contacts.
Second-year Noel McGrory went with a friend to get tested at Walker on April 22. “I overheard the woman at the front desk ask the guy in front of me and my friend when the last time he had been tested was. He said [he had been tested on] Monday, and she told him that he could not get tested until a week had gone by. He mentioned that he had been exposed to COVID since then, and she mentioned something about being fine for the week and said that he still couldn’t get tested again,” McGrory told The Maroon. McGrory and his friend, who had both tested earlier in the week, were also unable to get tests.
Students have also been denied PCR tests from Walker while experiencing symptoms of COVID-19. Second-year Natalie Hoge went to Walker while experiencing cold- and flu-like symptoms. She was sent home with a rapid antigen test, which returned a positive test later that day.
A UChicago Forward update email sent on Friday, April 29, explained the policies for testing at Walker Museum. “We have limited participation in the program to twice per week, because results can take up to 48 hours and there is little diagnostic benefit from getting more than two PCR tests in the same week. Because of the time it takes to obtain results, individuals also should not seek tests on successive days.”
Additionally, the update said of symptomatic testing that “it is vital that individuals with COVID-19-like symptoms do not seek testing at the Walker Museum testing site.… Rapid/antigen testing for individuals who are symptomatic will no longer be provided at the Walker Museum. There is ample availability of symptomatic testing during the week at UChicago Medicine.”
Austin Zeglis contributed reporting.