‘You don’t exist’: Inside UA’s COVID-19 isolation dorms

University of Alabama freshman Caleb Overstreet has been living under isolation in the university’s Bryce

University of Alabama freshman Caleb Overstreet has been living under isolation in the university’s Bryce Lawn apartment complex since shortly after he tested positive for COVID-19 at Coleman Coliseum the afternoon of Aug. 27.

He first started experiencing symptoms the prior morning, but said he was only able to get an appointment for a rapid COVID test after calling the university’s coronavirus hotline more than a dozen times and leaving numerous voicemails over two days.

Since then, Overstreet says he has grown increasingly disillusioned with UA’s preparation for, and response to, the school’s massive COVID-19 outbreak. He is particularly critical of the university’s student isolation regime.

“They kind of pretend that once you get it, you don’t exist,” he said in a Wednesday phone interview from inside his isolation room. “It’s like they assigned a single person to manage all the COVID cases. That’s how it feels, like they pumped all of their energy into how it looks and then didn’t pump any energy into what happens if COVID shows up. They’re overwhelmed.”

‘A difficult and challenging time’

Since Monday, AL.com has interviewed seven students in isolation in three on-campus housing facilities: Bryce Lawn, Burke Hall and The Highlands. Five of them expressed frustration over both the way they have been treated by UA since their diagnoses and the broader university response to the pandemic.

On Tuesday, UA spokeswoman Monica Watts provided an in-depth emailed statement responding to a list of questions AL.com asked about the university’s COVID-19 isolation policies, plans and decisions.

“Students who isolate, or in some cases quarantine, go to a secure campus location with housing and food provisions and accommodations for the delivery of academic programs,” she said. “These are our standard operating procedures. If steps have been missed with an individual student, it is essential that we get those specifics and make the necessary corrections immediately.”

Watts said that students who test positive for COVID-19 or who experience symptoms after being exposed to a person known to have the virus are placed under “10 days of isolation with improved symptoms and no fever without medication for [the] last 24 hours,” adding that the policy is based on U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. Students who are exposed to someone who is positive for coronavirus are quarantined and asked to monitor for symptoms for 14 days.

COVID tree

The University of Alabama published a “COVID-19 Decision Tree” on Aug. 27 to help students determine what to do if they have symptoms or test positive for COVID-19 or are exposed to someone who has been diagnosed with the virus. (University of Alabama)

Freshman Zachary Bourg was diagnosed with COVID-19 at UA’s Student Health Center on Aug. 23, just four days after fall classes began. After receiving his diagnosis, he returned to his assigned dorm and called the school’s coronavirus hotline. He learned he’d be moving into The Highlands and was told what he needed to pack, how he would be fed, and other vital information.

He then received an email with additional information from Cathy Bolling, UA’s finance director for Housing and Residential Communities.

“I understand this may be a difficult and challenging time. We are here to assist any we (sic) can,” the email, which AL.com reviewed, said.

The 18-year-old from Alpharetta, Ga. was kept in isolation in The Highlands from that afternoon through Tuesday evening. He described the experience as relatively painless.

“I drove over to Highlands, put everything in my dorm and I was here,” he said in a phone interview Tuesday morning. “They told me exactly the things I’d have access to, like a refrigerator and a shower. They told me what I needed … It was a pretty quick process, which I was very happy with.”

Bourg said he has received fairly consistent support from the university since his diagnosis.

“Every person in isolation has two people that they can contact on a consistent basis. The first person is their housing representative, and they’re the initial person who told me where I was moving and what I needed to bring and everything,” he said. “The other person was the case manager. A case manager is assigned to each person individually and if you have symptoms or anything you can reach out to them.”

Zachary Bourg

University of Alabama freshman Zachary Bourg stands in his bedroom in his isolation apartment in The Highlands. (Courtesy Zachary Bourg)

Lack of contact

Overstreet, like four of the other students who spoke with AL.com, said he has had a much different experience. As of Wednesday, he had not spoken with any medical staff since he got his results on Aug. 27, and he said he was not even told what he should do if he were to require immediate medical attention.

“I haven’t been contacted by anyone medically. I guess if I couldn’t breathe I’d try to find my way to the hospital down the street,” he said. “They didn’t give me any instruction; they basically just stuck me here and haven’t been in touch since then.”

Though he has been in isolation for a week, Overstreet, who is from Florence, said the university has also not been in touch with him to investigate where he got the virus and who he may have exposed. He said he worries the lack of action is fueling the explosion of COVID-19 cases at UA, which reported last week that there had been more than 1,000 positive tests for the virus at the Tuscaloosa flagship between Aug. 19 and Aug. 27.

“There’s been no form of contact tracing,” Overstreet said. “When I was at the [Coleman] Coliseum and got tested, I told them that I knew where I got it from … and they didn’t seem to want to do anything about it.”

Cody Brooks, a UA freshman from Hazel Green, Ala., has been in isolation at Burke Hall since Tuesday evening. He echoed Overstreet’s concerns that UA is not doing enough contact tracing and said he decided to do his own makeshift version of contact tracing in his car in the parking lot of Coleman Coliseum after he tested positive for COVID-19 there Tuesday afternoon.

“That’s something I think could maybe be improved on. So far, I’ve had to personally contact everyone that I’ve been exposed to,” he said in a Thursday phone interview. “When I tested positive, they didn’t ask me who I had been exposed to. I think it needs to be done sooner if it is being done, just because I had been exposed to so many people already.”

Burke room

This image that was provided to AL.com depicts the bedroom of a student under COVID-19 isolation in the University of Alabama’s Burke Hall.

Life in isolation

Daily life in a University of Alabama isolation dorm can be boring and bleak, but the students who spoke with AL.com all described it as a necessary part of trying to ensure they don’t infect other people.

Each evening, a brown paper bag with a day’s worth of food for each student is left outside the door to their room or apartment.

“Here it’s delivered around 6 p.m. and we get food for all three meals delivered,” Brooks said, describing his experience at Burke Hall. “It’s been, like, pasta for dinner last night and tonight, with a vegetable – tonight it was corn and green peas – and a dessert. And usually some sort of cereal, muffin and boiled eggs for breakfast and usually some kind of wrap and apple, and chips, cookies for lunch.”

Bourg said there is a knock on the door to his apartment in The Highlands every night between 6:30 and 7:30 p.m. Students are expected to wait a few moments before retrieving their food to minimize contact with the person who delivered it.

“It’s adequate. It’s not amazing by any means, but it’s getting me fed,” he said. “It is what it is, but I’m able to deal with it, and I think most people are able to deal with it.”

Overstreet said he has had a somewhat less positive dining experience at Bryce Lawn.

“Breakfast and lunch are repetitive but decent. Dinner is a hit or miss of who knows what,” he said. “I’ve gotten everything from halfway decent spaghetti to a cold fatty lambchop – I think it was a lambchop, it was covered in fat … I’ve also gotten some kind of chicken and other different things.”

Three students said that they had seen the people who delivered their food and that they wore full-body personal protective equipment, including hospital-style gowns, masks and protective eyewear, when they made the deliveries. Five students said they have had additional food, toiletries and other items delivered by friends or family members or via the food delivery service Instacart.

Watts said in the UA statement that in the isolation dorms, “students receive food and supplies regularly” after filling out an “entry survey” that includes questions about food allergies and dietary restrictions. She said food is delivered by Aramark, a national company contracted to provide food service at UA via Bama Dining, as well as at hundreds of other university campuses, prisons and jails across the country.

“Aramark (Bama Dining) delivers a hot dinner and the next day’s breakfast and lunch with accommodations for dietary needs per the individual student’s entry survey,” Watts said in the statement. “For students already on premises, delivery occurs around 6-6:30 p.m. and around 8-8:30 p.m. for later arrivals. Aramark mandates the type of personal protective equipment its staff uses.”

Food bag

A delivery bag containing a full day’s worth of food sits in the hallway of the University of Alabama’s Burke Hall in this image that was provided to AL.com.

All of the students who spoke with AL.com said the university and their professors have done a good job of ensuring they can generally keep up on their coursework and lectures even though they are barred from attending the few classes they have that still include in-person components. Despite the challenges, they said they are glad UA has an option for students to isolate so they don’t have to risk spreading the virus to other students or taking it home to loved ones.

“Classes have not been too much of a change overall, honestly, and the only reason I say that is because most classes were set up to accommodate online learning anyway,” Bourg said. “All of my professors have been very supportive throughout the whole process. They’ve told me we’ll work it out.”

When meals and classes are over, there is not much to do in an isolation room. Students variously said they spend their time studying, sleeping, reading, watching TV, surfing the internet, playing video games, hanging out with roommates and talking with friends and family online and on the phone. Two students said they occasionally venture out of their rooms to talk with students in their rooms or common areas, but most said they have avoided mixing with other people.

“It’s not been that bad for me just because I guess we kind of went through this whole thing in March and April of staying inside and keeping ourselves busy. And I have all my classes online,” Brooks said. “At least for me personally, I haven’t developed that kind of cabin fever that might develop later on.”

‘The tricky part’

Bourg said the process of moving out of his dorm and into isolation at The Highlands was “the tricky part,” and that he did not receive assistance from the university.

“That was a little more difficult. Getting all my stuff ready – since I was infected, they didn’t send anyone – and it was kind of a one-trip thing where I had to take all my stuff down in one trip and drive it over,” said Bourg, who had two roommates for much of his time in The Highlands.

“I’m not going to lie and say it’s been all peachy. It’s been hard emotionally, and definitely moving in with people you don’t know and having to socialize with them, that’s been a difficult process.”

Bourg also said it became harder to get someone on the university’s COVID-19 hotline as more cases piled up over the past week.

“Originally, I was just able to call them, but now when I call, I have to leave a message and they’ll get back to me,” he said Tuesday.

The university required that Bourg be asymptomatic for 24 hours and have been in isolation for a total of 10 days in order for him to leave isolation on Tuesday.

Watts said CDC policy “no longer requires a test for clearance to return to campus activities or work.”

On Tuesday night, UA cleared Bourg to move back in with his roommate in his assigned dorm. He had not been tested for coronavirus since Aug. 23.

The Highlands kitchen

University of Alabama freshman Zachary Bourg’s COVID-19 isolation apartment in The Highlands has a full kitchen. (Courtesy Zachary Bourg)

COVID patrol

Alex Thill is in the rare position of living alongside people in COVID-19 isolation but not having had a positive coronavirus test or known direct exposure to someone who has.

The UA junior has lived in an apartment in Bryce Lawn since early August. He said life in the complex was much like it was when he lived there last spring until around the time of Mayor Walt Maddox’s Aug. 24 announcement that all bars in the city of Tuscaloosa would close for 14 days.

That’s when Thill says the building’s apartments began to fill up with students under isolation after testing positive for COVID-19. He said he has not had any issues with his fellow students, but that with their arrival came an increased police presence.

“For the first couple weeks, they had police patrols maybe every 30 minutes. But when the [bar] moratorium initially started, they were stopping literally everyone and saying you need to be isolated,” he said.

Watts said that “Security Resource Officers, who work in conjunction with UAPD, are on site 24/7” at the COVID-19 isolation buildings to “provide security and support.”

Three students who live in Burke Hall, including Brooks, said that someone is constantly posted at one of two entrances to Burke West – the building’s west tower and home to all students currently under isolation at Burke. Students under isolation are supposed to use that entrance and avoid walking through a second entrance that opens onto a ground-floor common area shared with students in Burke East who are not under isolation.

Brooks said the people posted at that entrance appear to be tasked with stopping infected people from leaving the premises.

“There has been some speculation and gossip that we can leave and, like, drive around,” Brooks said. “But someone tried to leave and they did not let him. I was in the fifth-floor common room and he had taken the elevator down. He was getting tired of the place so he was going to leave and drive around. But soon after, they sent him back up and said he couldn’t leave.”

None of the three Burke students knew what agency or company employs the people who watch over the Burke West entrance. Thill said the officers who patrol outside Bryce Lawn all drive cars with University of Alabama Police Department markings.

“It’s only UAPD vehicles, exclusively,” he said.

Burke Hall

A COVID-19 isolation floor inside the University of Alabama’s Burke Hall, is depicted in this image that was provided to AL.com.

‘Rage and fury’

In recent days, students’ family members and Tuscaloosa residents who are not UA students, faculty or staff have called for the university to institute additional measures to ensure it is doing everything possible to ensure more students and locals don’t contract COVID-19.

Some believe that the majority of sick students should not remain on campus after receiving positive test results.

“I feel like isolation dorms should only be an option for students who don’t have a safe or accepting home to go back to right now,” Louise Sinclaire, a lifelong Tuscaloosa resident and 2014 UA graduate, said.

David Fagin, whose niece is just beginning her freshman year at UA, said he believes UA should cancel all in-person classes, a view that has been expressed by many observers.

“There’s no way kids should be going to school in person, simply because they have no impulse control when they’re in college,” he said in a Tuesday phone interview from New Jersey. “What do you think is going to happen when you put 10 bulls in a ring with a couple of hot cows and tell them not to go near them?”

Sinclaire said “the only reasonable choice for them is to end on-campus classes before the entire town is sick.”

Meanwhile, the University of Alabama System issued a press release on Wednesday that stated “that it is safer for universities to remain open and make resources available to students” than for them to close and risk spreading the virus to students’ hometowns.

Such claims are unlikely to move people like Fagin, who said that his niece has already had to be isolated in a residence hall because she had COVID-like symptoms but tested negative for the virus.

“It’s definitely not a good feeling when there’s nothing you can do. It goes from you wanting to be there to help to rage and fury,” Fagin said. “It just seemed a little bit like a concentration camp, just throwing you in with the rest of the lepers.”

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