“Welcome back to hell on Earth!” was a text I got from one of my friends first week Friday, as I checked into Fairfield to isolate before returning to campus. I snickered at the message, not knowing that just five days later, I’d be thrown into the most traumatic botched campus-COVID-protocol situation to be publicly recorded.
Over the past year, I’ve gone out of my way to keep myself and others safe as this pandemic rages on. For me, that meant staying in a small and sterile covid bubble and mostly forfeiting the fun of being a 21-year-old woman. I moved six times over the course of this pandemic to avoid being at the mercy of Carleton’s administration, a body that has instilled in me a deep sense of distrust over the past three years I’ve attended this institution. Just one month into my time at Carleton, I went through a freak experience with a roommate who no longer attends Carleton (for unrelated reasons), and was left to my own devices for an entire week. Even after I advocated for myself, the best Carleton could do was stick me into a triple: two new roommates, when I wasn’t even in the proper mental space for one. This incident, along with hearing accounts from fellow students—especially those who can check BIPOC or FGLI (first generation, low income) boxes—has left me incredibly wary of the power of this institution, or lack thereof when its adversary is not an individual that can be ignored, or inundated with bureaucratic procedure until they wither away into oblivion, but rather a pathogen that becomes increasingly formidable when neglected. But after nine straight months of planning, packing, signing the short term lease, rinse and repeat, I was out of solutions and a sense of home; maybe it was time to go back to campus after all.
Monday was my first COVID test: a PCR to be shipped to Mayo Clinic in Rochester, where I grew up. All was well until Wednesday when I took my second test: rapid, came back positive an hour after I took it. I sat in the shock and confusion for a minute: I’m the most careful person I know, and any of my friends can attest to that. The contact tracer called shortly, and after a round of questions, she agreed how weird it was that I could have caught it. She also assured me that someday I’d laugh about the fact that after losing 20 to a self-imposed quarantine (because all our governing bodies and institutions were making an aggressive push to normal), I’d somehow caught COVID the week I stepped out at 21. Not even I have a sense of humor that twisted.
After my concerns about the rapid test being a false positive were shut down, I was instructed to leave the hotel and go into campus isolation. I got permission to spend one more night in the hotel to deal with classes, pack and mentally prep. That same night, my first test from Monday came back negative. I called the isolation coordinator to see if I could get retested due to the conflicting results and differences in type of test administered. She directed me to contact tracing, and to tell them exactly what I told her. Contact tracing assured me I was positive.
Denial, distrust, constant need for an exit plan in every room I’m in at Carleton. At least one of these things compelled me to figure out how to get a third test ASAP: I drove to a Farmington CVS the next morning before getting shut away in the isolation house, “107 College St.”—no one bothered to even name the place. As I locked myself in room 202, I heard the person in 201 struggling. The walls of the house were so thin, and the bare wooden floors created an echo—I could hear every cough, every sniffle, every phone call recount of their time spent at the hospital before they were dumped in 107 College St. to fight this by themselves.
For me, an (assumed) asymptomatic, COVID-positive person who hadn’t seen any sort of communal living space or illness in over a year, it was harrowing to constantly hear of what might become my fate in a couple days. Why were we put right next to each other in that big, empty, echoey house with shoddy cell service and no picture frames to stare at on the walls? To top it off, I had no Wi-Fi in my room. After all this, dealing with internet connection was just not my job. The person on the ITS call noted there was supposed to be a hotspot in the house, but evidently it hadn’t been properly set up, if at all. It was clear nobody was going to come and set it up any time soon.
The problem of an isolation house with a bunch of ailing college students is that nobody on the inside has the energy or interest to abide by COVID protocol (masking up in the hallways or common spaces, wiping down bathrooms and other spaces after use, handwashing, etc.), and nobody on the outside wants to come in to enforce rules or even administer care. I made so many calls and emails asking to be moved to a different room or isolation space, not only because of my deteriorating mental health from having to constantly hear 201, but also because of the lack of Wi-Fi—how was I supposed to get any work done in there when Zoom eats through my data like nothing else? And then when I succumbed to the worst panic attack of my life, my parents started sending emails and making calls for me.
The isolation coordinator suggested I sleep in the room of a person who recently moved out; it hadn’t been cleaned yet, but I could take my bedding and replace theirs—the key was mine for the taking!*
The nurse who contacted me from SHAC asked if I needed anything, and when I expressed concerns about leaving my room because nobody was following protocol in the house, she paused before asking, “But you’re positive, right?”*
Let’s speculate that the second test was indeed accurate, and I was positive at that moment. This suggests that my first test was a false-negative and I had just begun to have a large enough viral load for it to even have registered after that first negative test. I’m no epidemiologist, but intuitively, it seems like a bad idea to introduce even more virus particles while I’m combating the ones that are already making a fool out of my body.
Furthermore, the administration indicated the presence of variant strains on campus. I did a lot of advocating for better conditions before this school year started and variants were even a concern, and that was all based off of hypothetical screw-ups on the part of the college. This was worse than I’d imagined. After all this marketing, I am appalled to have witnessed firsthand the robust isolation strategy they have in place is just dumping all the positives into a shoebox and hoping for the best, even if it means students are swapping strains while in isolation. I’ll give credit where it’s due though: the single mug full of sour straws, popcorn and Cheez-Its on my shelf was a nice touch.
After being told there was nowhere to move me and nothing to be done about the Wi-Fi, I decided to get myself out of there, regardless of what that illicit pending third test said. I was informed to leave is to break the covenant, as if the covenant wasn’t failing at what it was designed to do at that moment: offer me protection as a member of the Carleton community. There are no real checks and balances in place for those who break the covenant, especially if they’re already in isolation. For the past year, the administration has been banking on individuals to ensure their own safety, and that somehow holds even more true in isolation. To 201 from 107 College St.: I was/am really worried about you. I’m sorry you had to go to the hospital and then to that house. I’m sorry you were burning up at 5:30 a.m. to the point of screaming, and I hope someone helped you open your window or moved you to a room where the windows actually open. Most of all, I hope you’re breathing more deeply and clearly now.
As for me, I’m currently quarantining in Rochester. My fully-vaccinated parents and I agreed that this is better for the sake of my safety and sanity. The third CVS test I took came back negative the day after I left that isolation house. Though I double-masked and went outside of my room only twice in the 24 hours I was in isolation, the way things were handled leaves aching fears in my mind about whether or not my room was aired out, disinfected, safe to be in after whoever did their time before me. I’m praying the exposure wasn’t significant, and I’ll retest in a few days. On one hand, I’m carrying a lot of trauma in my soul, and on the other, I’m glad it was me. Someone more trusting might have actually slept in that unclean room and surely caught COVID, and that would have been a shame. I can’t help but wonder how many students were given advice to their detriment who just haven’t stepped forward or weren’t even aware of the harm they were being led into.
For now, I’m simply trying to make sense of and heal from what the hell it was that just happened to me—something we should all do at some point as this pandemic turns endemic. I’ll try again next year when I’m fully vaccinated and this institution hopefully has its business together. To my friends who stuck by me through this whole ordeal, told me I wasn’t crazy for wanting a retest, or that I wasn’t manufacturing the trauma I felt in that specific isolation situation, filled out that Community Concern Form I asked you to because no one in charge had any actual answers to my own questions, or even offered to drop off groceries at the door: thank you for getting me through this. I’ll see you soon enough. It will have been a while, so my final ask of you is that you give me a campus tour when I do return.
*Most of this type of correspondence was done over the phone rather than email