Chris Del Gaizo didn’t go to any fraternity parties or crowded dorm room gatherings — but it didn’t matter. On Feb. 8, he received a call from University of Massachusetts contact tracers telling him he had tested positive for coronavirus.
For the two days after his test, the sophomore operations and information management major had been living in the dorms and visiting dining halls, not knowing he carried the virus.
“I could have spread it to so many people,” he said.
The contact tracers moved Del Gaizo from his Southwest Residential Area dorm to the nearby Washington Hall, where he is currently isolated.
Inside Washington, a building now filled with sick students, some exempt from classes, the health and safety protocols expected of people in quarantine went out the window.
“It’s honestly a mess in here,” Del Gaizo said. “There’s just no rules.”
Like many other students in quarantine, Del Gaizo only had mild symptoms. Perhaps because of this, “everyone was getting together and hanging out pretty normally,” he said.
Interviews with more than a dozen students paint a picture of an unenforced quarantine in which students can continue their normal, social college lifestyle within the isolation space, if they choose.
But these interviews also reveal the shortcomings of a school trying to manage several hundred active cases of coronavirus at once — meals forgotten to be delivered to students by dining services; sporadic wellness checks that were intended to be provided on a daily basis, but often never came; and, for one student, medical equipment which has yet to arrive.
Part III: The Quarantine
Since Jan. 25, when on-campus move-in began for the spring semester, over 800 students have tested positive for coronavirus. Many more have been labeled close-contacts and spent time in quarantine.
In residence halls, students widely ignored health guidelines and threw crowded, maskless dorm parties that fueled the spread. Resident assistants had little power to stop them from breaking rules.
The sheer number of new COVID-19 cases led to delays in contact tracing, which left some students in residence halls days after they tested positive or were exposed to the virus. Ultimately, the school was forced to enlist the state’s help in tracking down close contacts of off-campus students.
But even for those who were able to enter an isolated living space, the trouble did not stop.
Multiple students, including Del Gaizo, described similar occurrences in isolation or quarantine spaces — students positive with COVID-19 gathering to drink and socialize without masks on.
Six students interviewed for this article were granted anonymity to avoid retribution and speak freely about their peers’ disregard of health guidelines. They are referred to by their middle names.
These interviews are corroborated by videos obtained by the Daily Collegian, one of which shows more than 20 students playing cup pong in an isolation dorm in Sylvan Residential Area. None of the students in the video are wearing masks.
The video, provided to the Daily Collegian by an RA who included it in an incident report, has a caption that reads “prince<sylvan.” Suites in Sylvan are being used as isolation space for students positive with COVID-19, and the RA confirmed that the student who posted the video to their Snapchat story is normally a resident of Prince Hall in Southwest.
The RA also included a screenshot from his phone showing that the video was taken recently.
“The university is very aware of some students disregarding COVID protocols in quarantine and isolation housing,” campus spokesperson Ed Blaguszewski said in a statement to the Daily Collegian. The school “has taken steps to identify issues, intervene and to remove some students from those buildings due to their behavior.”
Other students who violated quarantine guidelines have been referred to the Dean of Students Office for Code of Student Conduct violations, he said.
During her first night in quarantine, Mary, a sophomore isolating in a suite in McNamara Hall in Sylvan, could hear a party beneath her through the floor. The building is being used to house COVID-positive students.
Maria, a student whose dorm is in Cashin Hall, a Sylvan building adjacent to McNamara, verified the description of COVID-positive students throwing parties. She could hear parties in McNamara from her building next door, even with the windows closed.
Maria also provided a video to the Daily Collegian showing the noise coming from McNamara.
“People have just been going into whoever’s rooms they want,” Mary said, her roommates among them. She described students gathering in Sylvan rooms to play cup pong, a similar situation to that shown in the video provided to the Daily Collegian.
The quarantine buildings have little monitoring inside, multiple students said, making parties like these difficult to prevent. Bags aren’t checked upon entering, allowing students to easily sneak alcohol into the building, Mary said.
The University will begin to add Residence Life staff to the buildings during evenings to intervene with student behavior, Blaguszewski told the Daily Collegian on Thursday.
In addition to the parties, Maria saw people regularly walk in and out of the quarantine space and meet up with friends outside. She remembered seeing 10 students walk in and out of McNamara.
“[People] go back to their off-campus living and pick stuff up,” Mary said. “No one is really going to stop you if you left and came back.”
But the buildings aren’t left entirely unmonitored. While students said there haven’t been RAs or dorm security inside the halls, UMass police officers have been stationed outside of quarantine buildings to prevent entry by those not in quarantine and exit by those who are, Blaguszewski confirmed.
One freshman said that on her first night quarantining in the UMass Hotel, two boys knocked on her and her friend’s door across the hall.
“Do you want to come into our room to hang out?” they asked.
“I was like, ‘No, I’m not here to hang out,’” she responded.
“I was mad,” she said. “It’s just disrespectful to all the healthcare workers in UMass who were obviously going through a really hard time.”
According to three students who began their isolations on-campus before the surge of cases during the first week of classes, the quarantine dorms weren’t always this way.
“I know it’s changed drastically now that numbers have jumped,” said Anushka Madappa, a sophomore math major, “but when I tested positive, it was a really quick and organized process.”
Madappa returned a positive test on Jan. 29, the day after she moved onto campus. She was driven to McNamara Hall and moved in an hour-and-a-half later. She was told to order a meal on DoorDash for that night and was given three complimentary meals for the next day.
A week into her isolation, however, things began to change. It was now Feb. 5, and in the previous four days, over 300 students had tested positive.
“My last three days in isolation, I think that’s when it went to s***, for lack of a better word,” Madappa said.
Food that was once delivered to Madappa’s door between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. was now left in the basement at a communal pick-up spot, usually much later than it had been arriving. She and her suitemates stopped receiving regular daily wellness calls from the school.
And the culture in the building became chaotic and care-free, she said.
People wore masks less often in the halls and when picking up food in the basement. The newcomers regularly went outside to smoke, play in the snow or pick up food that was delivered, she said.
“Even though you’re in a building with a bunch of COVID people, you’re still supposed to be wearing masks,” Madappa said. “But there were a bunch of girls who just couldn’t care less.”
Shashank Lal, a sophomore computer science major, also noticed a stark difference after cases spiked. He quarantined in Lincoln Apartments starting on Jan. 30, after a close contact tested positive. He described the beginning of his experience as a “loose quarantine,” in which students were allowed to go on walks and jogs with a mask on and meals were consistently delivered.
Madappa’s 10-day isolation ended on Feb. 7, the same day UMass increased the campus risk level from “Elevated” to “High,” and she began a two-week self-sequester period. She went from isolating in her suite in Sylvan to isolating in her dorm along with the rest of the campus.
In the rapidly-filling isolation dorms, the strain the virus was putting on UMass’ quarantine operation began to show.
Four students confirmed that wellness checks from the school came less often, or not all. Del Gaizo, on the other hand, had daily wellness calls, but he was still not getting what he needed from the University.
He required a medical device called a pulse oximeter, which checks a person’s pulse and oxygen saturation level. The school was supposed to call him on the first day of isolation about providing the equipment, but he never received a call.
Del Gaizo left a message with the Public Health Promotion Center, which was returned days later. He was placed on a waiting list but has not yet received the device.
“I’m basically fine now,” he said. “But I could have had a medical issue and they haven’t done anything about it.”
School officials are aware of the struggles many students have faced during their time in quarantine, Blaguszewski said.
“The resulting strain on UMass resources during the surge did result in delay and interruption of some services, and we have acted to address those matters,” he said.
Some wellness check-in calls were “set aside” as staff focused on contact tracing and transporting students infected with COVID-19 to isolation rooms, Blaguszewski said. Those calls have since resumed.
But the food delivery, part of UMass’ renowned dining program, has struggled to keep up with demand.
On her first full day quarantining in the UMass Hotel, Cassie Penttila, a sophomore computer engineering major, received her first meal at 3 p.m.
The day prior, she was notified that she had been exposed to the virus and would need to quarantine. Penttila waited in her room for five hours before transportation arrived to bring her to the UMass Hotel. She avoided leaving her room for food, expecting that it would be in her hotel room when she made it there.
When she arrived, there was a stale ham sandwich waiting for her.
In quarantine, students must order their meals for the next day by 4 p.m. on a smartphone app. For those informed of this process after the time they enter quarantine, there may not be meals available on their first day there.
Multiple students described ordering meals, only for their food to never arrive. Others noted the small portions and inability to order enough food to fill their appetite.
There were also issues with cleanliness in the buildings. Two students, including Del Gaizo, said their communal bathrooms haven’t been cleaned during the entirety of their stays.
When Tyler Aldolpho, a sophomore communications major, arrived for quarantine in Lincoln Apartments, he expected the building to be dirtier than his normal dorm. The complex, after all, had been slated for demolition before being repurposed for quarantine housing last semester.
“When I got here, the room was clearly very recently occupied and there were no staff who came in to clean the room or anything,” Aldolpho said. He said the bathroom was dirty and there were mud prints on the floor.
Two weeks of separation from the outside world, especially for those who lived in isolation while waiting to find out if they had the virus, was lonely for many students.
“It’s spending 24 hours a day by yourself,” said Thomas, a student quarantining in the UMass Hotel, eight days into his stay. “I’m secure when it comes to [mental health], but it’s just wearing me down so much. It feels like everyday is going on forever.”
Amelie, a freshman quarantining in the Lincoln Apartments, said she has never felt more alone in her life. “It’s just so isolated and the toll it takes on you mentally is incredible,” she said.
Several students were highly critical of the University, and questioned the school’s preparedness for an outbreak they believed could’ve been avoided.
Chris Brady, a freshman economics and political science double major and Student Government Association senator, was contact-traced when his neighbor in the dorms tested positive for COVID-19. For five hours after being called, he waited for transportation to the UMass Hotel. He hadn’t eaten in that entire time, and expected food would be at the hotel when he arrived.
There was no food there, and because he hadn’t known to place his food order the previous evening, there was no breakfast the next morning either. By the time he was brought lunch, Brady had gone roughly 24 hours without eating.
Brady has now finished his quarantine and never tested positive for the virus. His family, he said, was left feeling “confused” and “frustrated” by the situation at UMass.
As for Brady himself, he is left questioning if he should stay at UMass.
“I’m pretty bummed out, if I’m going to be completely frank,” he said. “I love UMass but this is super lame. If we get sent home, I’m definitely going to reevaluate coming back.”
Maria said she also considered leaving campus but decided she would wait it out.
“Some people don’t really have the best home lives. People that are going out and just disregarding the rules, they need to be more cognizant of the fact that [people] rely on UMass.”
“I feel like they just shouldn’t have had the campus back running if they couldn’t handle it,” Del Gaizo said. “Obviously, they can’t really handle it.”
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 II — Contact Tracing, can be found here.
Leigh Appelstein can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @LAppelstein.
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.