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A limbo of guilt: close contacts reflect

I had barely been on campus for 48 hours when I was sent one of the most dread-inducing emails a Carleton community member can receive: “Dear Carleton community member, you are receiving this email because you have been identified as a close contact of someone who recently tested positive for COVID-19.”

I already knew I had been exposed, as my close contact had reached out to me as soon as they had tested positive, but it did not make me any less upset, especially as I consider myself someone who takes COVID-19 very seriously. Even more troubling, however, was the fact that I knew I had been exposed to two students who had tested positive, and only received one email; it would be another almost 24 hours before I received the second one.

How many students had been identified as a close contact that the tracing team was already behind in sending these emails two days into the term? This is not to criticize the members of the tracing team in any way, but rather one of many questions that came to mind as I worried about the COVID-19 situation on campus.

How many students had been identified as a close contact that the tracing team was already behind in sending these emails two days into the term? This is not to criticize the members of the tracing team in any way, but rather one of many questions that came to mind as I worried about the COVID-19 situation on campus.

It makes sense that so many more people are being identified as close contacts due to the Omicron variant being so highly transmissible. Even so, being a close contact can really throw off your schedule for the week-long period that you are labeled as one, assuming you consistently test negative.

When asked about her experience, Amelie Cook ’25 said “I felt really isolated as a close contact, because even though I was still allowed to go to classes and technically allowed to socialize as long as I was masked, I was really worried about spreading it to others. I basically stayed in my room for the whole week.”

It seems that the feeling of anxiety about potentially spreading COVID-19 is shared amongst those who are close contacts. Youssef Haddad ’25 shared that “you quickly feel a wash of guilt for possibly spreading COVID-19 for the simplest things: getting dinner, going to class, living with your roommates.”

It is difficult to know what to do. When I was identified as a close contact, I wanted to attend classes virtually in order to reduce the possibility of spreading it to others in case I ultimately tested positive, a sentiment shared by several of my friends who were also close contacts. However, not all classes are offering virtual options, or if they are available, the professors openly admit that the quality of education will not be the same as it would be if class was attended in person as they do not have hybrid courses prepared. Of course, professors are limited by the guidelines and regulations presented to them by the college, and many are rather accommodating to students who have tested positive for COVID-19, leaving those who are close contacts in a sort of limbo of guilt.

According to the college’s website, “if you are fully vaccinated, you should continue to follow our community expectations—including wearing a mask—while continuing to attend classes and other activities.” This means, that someone who potentially has the virus and isn’t symptomatic yet, can still interact with other members of the community, potentially infecting them.

I think something that bothers a lot of students, myself included, is that close contacts are only highly encouraged, as is everyone else, to utilize the Green2Go eating system. But, if they don’t want to, they can still eat in the dining halls, unmasked. Grace Gatewood ’24 shared her thoughts on how she felt after being identified as a close contact: “There was a lot of initial dread and confusion. There was not a lot of guidance. I didn’t want to hole myself up alone in my room until I tested negative, but I felt irresponsible if I did not. I felt a lot of decision-making was placed on my shoulders.”

While the school is reacting to the situation at the same time the rest of the community, and the world, is, it seems that what a lot of people want is more guidance from the school, and firmer decisions as to what students can and can’t do, especially since some individuals take the issue more seriously than others.

The 15-30 minute period after being tested and waiting to be emailed your results is just one of many new sources of stress and anxiety for students this term. Sean Smith ’25 shared, “getting recognized as a close contact during the first week only amplified the stress I was feeling about starting the new term. Not being able to go to swim practice or eat in the dining hall with my friends (which normally served as stress outlets for me) was difficult.”

It seems that every time you walk past the rapid test site in the basement of Burton Hall, the line is longer than it was the day before. I, myself, have been tested five times since arriving on campus (each result has, thankfully, been negative). I must admit that I thought that after baseline testing was completed, cases would start to go down as students who had arrived on campus already infected (whether asymptomatic or not yet presenting symptoms) finished their isolation periods, but I continue to get texts from friends who have been identified as close contacts.

As of now, the on-campus infection rate is 6.82%. None of my classes have been fully moved online, but not even 15 minutes ago I received a Zoom link from one of my professors for students who have tested positive, are close contacts, or simply don’t feel comfortable attending class in person anymore.

Even though it is only week three, the students and professors alike seem drained and apprehensive as to the contents of the next community update email. It seems that this term will be more difficult than Fall Term was, but hopefully this means that once we are through the worst of it, we can look forward to a better Spring Term.

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