What Went Wrong
A COVID-19 outbreak at UMass exposes blindspots in the school's preparation for the semester
March 1, 2021
“Think of an absolutely normal time in Southwest — whether it’s the lowrises or the towers —and it’s dumbfounding how normal things are,” a University of Massachusetts resident assistant said.
He doesn’t mean “pandemic normal” — he means normal normal, with many students behaving as if this were any standard year on campus.
In the first week of UMass’ spring semester, a term in which the school widely opened the doors of its residence halls, coronavirus cases skyrocketed. More than 400 positive tests in the span of five days forced the University to raise its risk level to the highest possible mark, thus halting in-person classes for at least two weeks and requiring a self-sequester for all students living in the Amherst area.
Beginning Sunday, when the school raised its risk level to “High” and told students to remain in their residences, the Recreation Center and other campus buildings have been closed, a policy that will continue for at least two weeks. Leaving dorms to walk around campus, the school said, was not permitted, a policy it later rescinded.
Theta Chi, a fraternity on campus, drew intense focus and the ire of the school community last Saturday after the Daily Collegian reported that the chapter threw crowded, back-to-back parties the previous weekend that disregarded coronavirus health guidelines.
The fraternity has been placed on interim suspension while the school investigates, but it was more than just these parties that caused the outbreak.
An in-depth Daily Collegian investigation, reported here and in two other parts to be released in the coming days, tells the story of what went wrong at UMass, revealing the origins of a COVID-19 outbreak that can hardly be blamed entirely on members of the Greek life community.
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 in his dorm had tested positive for the 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 tracers 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 hall 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.
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.
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