With less than one week until the first day of classes, some students, faculty and staff have raised concerns about how the University of Michigan will contain possible COVID-19 outbreaks. Among these concerns is how students will quarantine or isolate themselves to prevent spreading the virus, particularly those living in off-campus housing.
The University says there are 600 rooms available for students who need to quarantine, but it remains unclear how and to whom these rooms will be provided. According to the University’s Maize and Blueprint website, the hub of information related to various COVID-19 policies, there will be spaces identified for “any U-M student who needs quarantine/isolation.”
The page also specifies that the Washtenaw County Health Department, in coordination with the University, will determine whether a student’s off-campus living situation is adequate to quarantine or isolate them effectively.
In an email to The Daily, University spokeswoman Kim Broekhuizen confirmed off-campus students could use the quarantine housing, assuming their situation meets certain qualifications.
“The university isolation and quarantine plan does allow for off-campus students to be placed in the designated isolation or quarantine space,” Broekhuizen wrote. “(This is) if the current living arrangement is determined to be unsuitable and the student is unable to go to a permanent home.”
The Health Department will evaluate each off-campus living arrangement on a case-by-case basis as people living there test positive for COVID-19. If too many off-campus students need space to quarantine, however, the Health Department may not be able to quickly manage all of those evaluations.
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia, public information officer for the Washtenaw County Health Department, said the department’s resources could quickly be overwhelmed if cases spread due to students congregating.
“All these factors could combine to mean that cases spread very, very quickly,” Ringler-Cerniglia said. “So we as a health department, of course, have a limited capacity and limited number of folks that are able to follow up and do that case investigation and contact tracing. So if there’s all of a sudden a very large number of cases related to the reopening, then yes, our resources could be quickly overwhelmed.”
LSA junior Samuel Burnstein said he believes the University’s communication has been unclear about how students living off-campus should proceed if they or someone they live with tests positive for COVID-19 and needs to quarantine.
“There’s been a barrage of emails in the last two to three months about changes to policies and updates to policies and revisions to policies,” Burnstein said. “And it’s so hard to discern what the current (policy is), where to even find that policy. It’s not something that is easily Google-able. So if I were to get sick on the third day of school being open, I don’t know immediately how to go about finding testing and I’m sure I’m not alone in that. And that’s what is kind of very utterly frustrating.”
Testing for symptomatic students is offered through University Health Services. In addition to the standard advice of limiting in-person contact, cleaning surfaces often and monitoring for symptoms of COVID-19, there are certain steps to take if someone in a communal living arrangement contracts the virus.
Students who test positive after visiting a non-University affiliated testing site are asked to report their case here. For non-symptomatic students who want a test, the University has a list of outside vendors.
According to guidance from Michigan Medicine, it is important to pick a “sick” bedroom and bathroom the infected person alone can use. Their laundry should also be kept separate. Roommates can help them track changes and ease their symptoms by helping them to eat and hydrate regularly. Visitors should be limited and those who live there should stay home.
After the person has recovered, they should remain quarantined until they are fever-free without medication for three days, their respiratory symptoms have improved and 10 days have passed since their symptoms first appeared. Those exposed should also stay home for 14 days after they were exposed. More information from the University on quarnatining can be found here.
LSA sophomore Saad Shami said he expects the virus to spread on campus, in part due to the lack of testing for students living in off-campus housing.
“With all the people living off campus, none of them were tested before they arrived on campus,” Shami said. “So I think it’s pretty likely that someone off campus, maybe even in my apartment complex, has COVID at the moment. So yeah, I’m definitely concerned about that for sure.”
Ringler-Cerniglia also stressed concerns about large, off-campus housing arrangements, such as Fraternity and Sorority Life housing, and said those living there need to take extra precautions.
“Certainly those situations where there’s a large number of people in direct contact do present that possibility of quickly spreading,” Ringler-Cerniglia said. “It’s all the more important for them to be very conscious of additional socializing. Certainly, that would fall under the concerns we have about congregate housing and partying or socializing and spreading cases even further.”
Parties at off-campus houses were seen around campus Sunday through Tuesday by multiple Daily reporters.
Even if the Health Department can sustain case-by-case investigations, many community members are worried 600 rooms will not be enough for everyone who tests positive for COVID-19 or who has ‘sustained personal contact’ with someone who tests positive for the virus. As of fall 2019, the University’s Ann Arbor campus had a total enrollment of approximately 48,000 students, with approximately two-thirds of undergraduates living off-campus.
When asked about concerns that 600 beds would not be enough, Broekhuizen explained how that number was generated.
“The 600 bed capacity was determined based upon benchmark comparison with similar-sized peer institutions,” Broekhuizen said.
After one week of in-person classes at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, there were only four rooms left available in the dorm used to quarantine students who were close contacts of people who tested positive for COVID-19.
Burnstein, who will be living in a co-op this year, expressed concern over how the virus will spread through co-ops, similar to how many have been worried about the safety of FSL housing.
He said students in co-ops have to do chores, and one of the additional chores at his co-op is sanitizing doorknobs. But “that’s the extent of the changes that are being made to the lifestyle of those who are in the co-ops.”
“I really think that a lot of attention will be paid to Greek life but not nearly enough attention will be paid to co-ops,” Burnstein said. “In my experience, at least in the last couple of weeks, they’ve signaled that they’ve done very, very little to prepare the houses and the students for you know, COVID in the fall.”
Rackham student Paul Rizik disagreed. He moved into a co-op last week and lived in Inter-Cooperative Council housing prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. He said there have been numerous changes to procedures to protect students from contracting the virus.
“We no longer have communal meals (and) we have assigned bathrooms to minimize people’s exposure,” Rizik wrote in an email to The Daily. “We have a house policy dictating that everyone has to wear masks in public spaces until 2 weeks into the semester, and every cleaning chore I’ve done has taken nearly twice the amount of time it did before I left, since people’s standards are so much higher.”
According to Sarah Kathleen Garcia, ICC’s vice president for finance, the ICC has assembled a COVID-19 task force to meet weekly and discuss how members can best be kept safe. She added that houses have taken various actions to limit the spread of the virus, including quarantining new members and requiring masks in common areas. Currently, Garcia said, the ICC dictates each house must discuss their guest policy at a general meeting as soon as possible and no guests are allowed during the move-in period.
In a statement to The Daily, ICC President Julian Tabron said they have taken extensive steps to ensure member safety, such as prohibiting large gatherings and requiring training for members.
“We understood from the beginning that this pandemic was a huge threat to student group housing, and we have taken many steps to ensure member safety in our homes,” Tabron wrote. “Member safety is always a top priority and we want to be as transparent as possible to our members so they can feel safe in our community.”
Ringler-Cerniglia stressed the importance of students following public health guidelines to contain COVID-19 and understanding the consequences if the virus spreads.
“(The Health Department) can’t do it just by the work that we do alone, we need cooperation from everybody,” she said. “And if that doesn’t happen, then I think we all have a pretty good idea of what does happen, right? Things have to shut down, they have to go online.”
Correction: This article has been updated to include information from the Inter-Cooperative Council on the organization’s efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Daily Staff Reporter Emma Ruberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.