What Went Wrong: Part II — The Contact Tracing
A strained contact tracing system left students, positive with or exposed to COVID-19, stuck in dorms for days
February 16, 2021
Connor, a University of Massachusetts freshman, arrived for his first semester away at college on Jan. 25. He moved into his dorm in the Southwest Residential Area, got tested twice during his first week, just as UMass instructed, and kept his contacts limited during the initial four days on campus.
“But then more and more people got here,” Connor said and “more and more bigger hangouts started to happen.”
Three students interviewed for this article, including Connor, were granted anonymity to avoid retribution and speak freely about their peers who broke, and continue to break, health guidelines. Their names have been changed to protect their privacy.
On Feb. 4, the first Thursday of classes for the spring semester, Connor started getting a cough. People on the floor of his dorm had tested positive for coronavirus, so he isolated in his room and went to the Mullins Center to be tested first thing Friday morning.
When his results came back positive on Saturday, Connor wasn’t surprised.
Four hours later, UMass contact tracing called the freshman, asking about his close contacts. They told him to expect a call regarding transportation to isolation housing.
All throughout the day, Connor waited for the call. He left his room only to use the bathroom and get water. Friends brought back food from the dining halls and dropped it off at his room.
A full 24 hours after learning he had COVID-19, Connor was still living in his dorm, still waiting on a call from UMass and still using the same facilities as everyone else in the building. It wasn’t until Sunday afternoon — after three days of symptoms — that he was moved into isolation housing.
Part II: Contact Tracing
In the first two weeks of the spring semester, a wave of coronavirus cases swept through the UMass community, infecting nearly 700 people.
In residence halls, health and safety guidelines were widely disregarded by students. As resident assistants attempted to prevent maskless and overcrowded dorm parties, many students told them, “I’m here for my college experience. I’m here to have as much normalcy as possible, and if you’re getting in the way of that, you’re ruining my college experience,” according to James Cordero, co-chair of the Resident Assistant/Peer Mentor Union.
As students ignored room capacity and mask rules, the virus spread through campus housing. The record-breaking wave of positive cases, including nearly 300 between Feb. 2 and Feb. 4, overwhelmed UMass’ contact tracing system, leading school administrators to seek the state’s help in managing the situation.
“Delays [in contact tracing] did occur,” campus spokesperson Mary Dettloff confirmed in a statement to the Daily Collegian on Friday.
“The [Public Health Promotion Center] staff did have to prioritize moving students who tested positive first, then start case investigations and notification of close contacts, followed by moving the close contacts to quarantine space,” Dettloff said.
On Feb. 5, at the height of UMass’ case spike thus far, campus administrators reached out to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health for assistance with contact tracing, Dettloff also confirmed. Off-campus students are now being contact traced by the state, while the school continues to handle on-campus cases.
The impact of a strained contact tracing system was evident across campus, with students left in dorms for several days after they tested positive or experienced symptoms.
Four students interviewed described testing positive for the virus or being exposed by friends, and then waiting days for further instruction from UMass. Many reached out in vain to phone numbers and emails listed by the school, seeking answers and safe living spaces to isolate in.
As a result of numerous students having difficulty getting into contact with the University to receive assistance, UMass established a COVID-19 Call Center.
“The testing is definitely not the problem. They have the ability to do even more tests than they’re currently doing every day,” said Sara McKenna, the Student Government Association secretary of university policy. “It’s just that getting a positive result doesn’t really serve anyone if people aren’t notified about it.”
“It’s concerning to hear that there wasn’t the ability to keep up with the rising numbers and all of the close contacts,” said Sonya Epstein, the SGA president.
All the while, the virus continued to spread through UMass’ residence halls, infecting over 400 on-campus students.
For those who knew or suspected they were infected, there was little choice but to hunker down and use the shared bathrooms and water fountains while waiting to hear from the school. Some students had friends or RAs drop off food from the dining halls.
When that wasn’t an option, other students went into the dining halls while awaiting positive test results.
On Wednesday, Feb. 3, freshman psychology major Nicole Keddy received a call from a contact tracer. She had potentially been exposed to the virus and would have to quarantine at home or in UMass’ dedicated quarantine housing. The contact tracer told her to call back once she had made a decision.
Keddy returned the call, but it went to voicemail and she left a message. Then, for the next three days, she stayed in her dorm and waited for a response.
“I left probably five or six voicemails and emailed them and got nothing for days,” she told the Daily Collegian via email. Another close contact of hers faced a similar situation.
“We were both left to linger in the dorm, use the bathrooms and showers, and go to dining halls while positive or potentially positive,” she said. “I didn’t know which building I was going to, what I needed to bring, who I came in contact with, what the next steps were, what I was allowed to do or where I needed to get tested.”
Keddy’s friend had also been contacted Wednesday about possible exposure. On Friday night, after two days of waiting, the friend finally got a call telling her that she’d be quarantining in the UMass Hotel.
Although the school has offered students who need to quarantine transportation to new living spaces, several students said they had to walk due to delays in transportation. When Keddy’s friend found out that she’d be living in the hotel, she walked there alone in below freezing temperatures, carrying all her belongings for the 10 to 14-day quarantine period.
Keddy joined her at the hotel the next day, three days after learning that she’d been exposed to the virus.
For Chris Brady, a freshman economics and political science double major and Class of 2024 senator, the contact tracing call came just four days after arriving on campus.
The contact tracer walked him through the process, telling Brady to pack his belongings and letting him know he would be provided transportation to quarantine housing. Brady asked for an estimated time when the transportation would arrive, but the contact tracer wasn’t sure.
Because he was in isolation, Brady wasn’t able to leave the dorm to eat. After five hours of waiting, transportation arrived to take him to the UMass Hotel. He was told there would be food there when he arrived.
There was not, nor was there breakfast for him the following morning.
In quarantine housing, students must place their meal orders for the following day by 5 p.m. But Brady didn’t know that, nor did multiple other students who described not having meals available when they first arrived in temporary housing.
“There was a lot of conflicting information, or really primarily just not a lot of information,” Brady said. “I concluded that the reason I didn’t get meals was because I came too late to place the order.” Brady arrived at the hotel around 9 p.m., four hours after the designated ordering time.
After realizing there wasn’t breakfast available to him, Brady began “bothering a lot of people on their phones,” he said. He never got through to anyone, but eventually someone brought him lunch.
All told, Brady went roughly 24 hours without eating.
On Feb. 7, when UMass raised the campus risk level to its highest mark, the SGA surveyed students on their opinions of the University’s coronavirus response.
The surveys gave insight into dorm life, including a testimony from a student in the dorms whose bathroom went four days without soap being refilled, McKenna said. Responses also confirmed that many students who tested positive for coronavirus, along with their close contacts, remained in the dorms long after receiving calls from contact tracing.
“I remember there was one student who said that their friend tested positive, and they didn’t get a call about being a close contact for four days,” McKenna said.
Across campus, this pattern was repeated, leaving students known to have the virus to live alongside their healthy peers while contact tracers pushed to catch up against the burden of new cases.
On Friday, Feb. 5, Amelie, a UMass freshman, began to feel COVID-19 symptoms but assumed nothing of it until the next morning, when she got a text from a close contact. That person had tested positive and told Amelie to expect a contact tracing call from the school.
On Saturday, a day after she knew she had been exposed to the virus, Amelie still had not been called. She contacted University Health Services and asked to be moved from her dorm.
“UHS told me to pretty much sit in my dorm until Monday,” she said.
“It didn’t seem fair” to others in her residence hall, Amelie said. She called the school throughout Saturday and was eventually able to get someone on the phone. She was told she’d be moved the next morning to an isolation space in Sylvan Residential Area.
That call didn’t come. Instead, late Sunday morning, Amelie received a call telling her she’d be moving to Lincoln Apartments, an aging apartment complex that, before being converted to quarantine housing, was slated for demolition last year. Her move-in was further delayed when the room she was supposed to live in sprung a gas leak.
Across campus, on the same Saturday that Amelie found out she had been exposed, Cecilia, another freshman, was having a similar experience. Her roommate had tested positive, and Cecilia had received a contact tracing call. She was told to wait for another phone call directing her to a quarantine space.
“I said, ‘Okay, I’ll just wait in my car,’ assuming they’d call me back soon,” Cecilia said. Two hours later, still sitting in her car, Cecilia realized she wouldn’t get a prompt call back. Her roommate, who was supposed to be driven to the isolation housing hours earlier, still hadn’t been picked up.
“I tried calling all of the numbers that I could find, and emailing, and I couldn’t get a hold of anyone,” Cecilia said. “It all went to voicemail, plus it was after hours on the weekend and that made it even harder.”
Eventually, Cecilia decided to walk into the UMass Hotel, one quarantine space for students who have been exposed to the virus. A man working in the lobby helped her contact one of the people directing transportation out of the dorms for students like herself. There had been delays with the carts that UMass was using to ferry students across campus to their quarantine housing, she was told.
Cecilia would need to retrieve her belongings from her dorm in Southwest, enough for the full 10- to 14-day quarantine period, and carry them a mile across campus to the hotel. It was now below freezing.
For students living in the dorms, moving to one of the isolation spaces seemed inevitable, Amelie said.
“I tried to be really careful,” she said. “I lived in Southwest and everyone was just dropping like flies. I found everyday you would hear about more and more kids moving out, and it was only a matter of time.”
Without prompt responses from contact tracers or help moving belongings into the quarantine space, “I’ve had to figure out pretty much [everything] myself,” Amelie said.
“I thought of it as Fyre Festival, except just the UMass edition,” she said.
Students experiencing difficulties with contact tracing or quarantine can now call UMass’ COVID Call Center at 413-577-2999 to speak with staff Monday – Friday, 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m., or write to [email protected]
This article is part of a three-part series exploring the spread of COVID-19 through the University of Massachusetts at the opening of the spring semester. Part I, The Dorms, can be found here, and Part III, The Quarantine, can be found here.
Cassie McGrath can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @cassiemcgrath_.
Will Katcher can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @will_katcher.
Sofi Shlepakov can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @SShlepakov.
The Daily Collegian News Section can be reached at [email protected]. Follow them on twitter @CollegianNews.