November 30, 2020

Students With COVID–19 Learn to Live in Isolation Housing

Stony Island dormitory.

Alexandra Nisenoff / The Chicago Maroon

The first call Conner Fong received was from the UChicago testing center, informing him that he had contracted COVID-19. Then came the contact tracers, asking him who he’d been in close contact with for the last week or so. Another was a nurse, who asked if he was feeling any symptoms. Arriving on October 2, these calls felt a little overwhelming to Fong, though he wasn’t too surprised he was receiving them.

Fong, a first-year student living in Campus North, knew one of his friends had tested positive for the virus a few days earlier. But at the time, Fong thought he had avoided the virus. He had not had much in-person contact with his friend and assumed the muscle aches he’d been having were just from working out.

But he soon found himself boarding an ambulance bound for Stony Island Hall, one of UChicago’s temporary housing centers for students who test positive. Fong felt slightly embarrassed ducking into the vehicle. “The ambulance [was my] personal Uber,” he said.

UChicago has been sending students to Stony Island Hall (or Snell-Hitchcock, the other building used for isolation housing) since the beginning of autumn quarter. Their isolation protocol is intricate, but the broader points are clear: students who test positive for COVID–19 must stay inside their designated housing center until they are cleared to return. This usually takes about 10 days. Once inside their temporary residences, they are provided with an apartment already fitted with bedsheets, linens, pillows, and towels. Meals are dropped off at the door, and a “care package” containing medicine, tissues, and other items to help coronavirus symptoms sits on one of the tables in the living room.

Jenna Uhles, another first-year who tested positive, also stayed in Stony while she was infected. Her ambulance was delayed in getting to the isolation housing; the dispatchers had been given the wrong address, and Uhles ended up in a town on the Indiana border called Calumet City. The situation was eventually resolved, and Uhles arrived at Stony—about the same time first-year Daisy Brownfield, a roommate of Uhles’s, began receiving the same series of phone calls Fong and Uhles had already gone through. Brownfield wasn’t surprised, as Uhles was a close contact of hers; she’d been packing her bags for Stony before even getting the call.

The housing official on the phone told Brownfield that her ambulance would be outside in an hour. Brownfield asked what she should do about her laundry, which was downstairs drying. The housing official told her to wipe the machines down with Clorox after she had finished using them.

Brownfield arrived at Stony a few minutes after Uhles; Fong had moved in the day before. He stayed by himself in an apartment, while Brownfield and Uhles shared one across the hall. Brownfield found their apartment large but slightly dirty. “There were a bunch of dead bugs on the table, there was a dead bee in the kitchen,” she said. “It was…grungy and dusty. There were a bunch of iron burns on the carpet. There was a piece of gum stuck to the wall.” All three of them used their balconies to get fresh air and people-watch. “Sometimes I’d drag a chair out to the porch and just sit there,” Fong said.

Fong rarely crossed paths with Uhles and Brownfield. “I didn’t even realize there were people down the hall from me until a few days in,” he said. “And by then I was already, like, ready just to leave.” Though everyone theoretically has the virus, you’re still only allowed one visitor to a room at any time in Stony Island. Consider this, along with the fact that only a few people inhabit Stony at any given time, and that no visitors from outside Stony can come inside for any reason, and the loneliness that inhabitants report makes sense. Fong spent most of his time alone in his apartment, which was outfitted with two bedrooms, four beds (only two of which were fitted with sheets), and two bathrooms. “One of the showers didn’t work, which was funny,” he said. He found the boredom overwhelming. When he wasn’t in class or doing homework, he watched television, read, and took showers just for the sake of it.

The two roommates passed the time working and watching movies together. “You have classes, you have homework, then you watch a movie and then you think, ‘Yeah, that’s like a normal day,’” Brownfield said.

Each day, a different nurse called them to check their symptoms. Brownfield partially lost her sense of smell and felt the occasional sniffle. Uhles was asymptomatic, barring a few headaches. A housing official from Stony Island reached out to them daily and would replenish their bottled water whenever they ran out. In addition to the nurses, there were plenty of emails and forms to respond to—mainly related to the athletic department, who tried to contact-trace Uhles and Brownfield separately from the University—and return to their respective senders. Phone calls came through from unknown numbers, often while Uhles and Brownfield were in the middle of virtual classes, asking about symptoms or whether they had been in contact with certain buildings on campus.

The other two first-years who lived with Brownfield and Uhles, Norma Ferrel and Marie Ardy, had been tested the same day as their roommates. But both their tests returned negative. Following separate phone interviews with the contact tracing team, Ardy was asked to quarantine for 14 days. Interestingly, no such restrictions were placed on Ferrel.

According to Uhles and Brownfield, the food they received was not what the University had promised. “They said in an email that they provide you with a fully stocked fridge…. That’s a complete lie,” Brownfield said. Their fridge contained two bottles of water and some Gatorade. There was a welcome basket waiting for them, but Brownfield was unimpressed. “It was mostly food that you really wouldn’t want to eat,” she said. What kind of food? There were some chocolate-covered pretzels, but Brownfield mentioned that those “were so stale that I had to throw them out…and I’m not usually a person that throws away chocolate.” Also included were some off-brand ramen noodles. “I don’t know how cheap you have to be to buy off-brand ramen,” Brownfield joked.

Fong said that he often received no indication when meals were left at his door. “I had to guess and see if [they were] there,” he said. Stony residents received cereal for breakfast, a choice between Cheerios and Chex, as well as a muffin and a granola bar. Lunch was usually a wrap and a side of either vegetables, an apple, or some chips. Dinner was generally spicy, the dinner staff testing their sense of smells and clearing their throats.

“I wish I brought some other food, because I didn't really like the food they gave me,” Fong said. Fortunately, Brownfield had come prepared. As she was packing her bag, she shoved in cans of soup, chicken nuggets, and even a coffee machine before rushing downstairs to leave North.

“It wasn’t that bad,” Brownfield said of her experience in Stony Island. “It was hugely improved by the fact that I had my roommate…. If we had been alone it would have been lonely and boring. It was still boring. But it wasn’t that bad.”

As the quarter has gone on, UChicago has done well in handling the pandemic on campus. Case numbers are low, especially in comparison to other universities with a similar number of students. Still, it’s good to know that even if a student comes down with COVID–19, the university is providing them with adequate support and hospitality––even if they could work on the food.