University of Michigan students face confusion, unsanitary conditions in quarantine housing

Sunday, September 13, 2020 - 2:41pm

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Courtesy of Callie Teitelbaum

When LSA junior Sam Burnstein arrived at the University of Michigan’s quarantine housing at Northwood apartments, he was underwhelmed by what he found. 

“When walking into the apartments here, the whole time I kept thinking, ‘This feels like a big afterthought,’” Burnstein said. “It feels like the University had, like, two or three weeks till the school year starts and they’re like, ‘Oh, we need somewhere to put these students,’ because everything was just very haphazardly thrown together.” 

In an effort to contain the spread of COVID-19, the University has told students who test positive for the virus, are symptomatic or were in close contact with someone who tested positive to isolate or quarantine for up to two weeks. 

But students in University-provided quarantine housing on North Campus have expressed concerns about what they describe as a lack of sanitation, the low quality of the meal delivery service and insufficient communication between them and the University.

Students who live in residence halls and test positive for the virus are required to quarantine or isolate at apartments on North Campus, return to their permanent residence or book a room at a local hotel. If a contact tracer discovers that a student had close contact with a COVID-19 positive individual, the exposed student is also instructed to go into quarantine. 

In an email to The Daily, University spokesperson Kim Broekhuizen said students are not required to stay in University-provided housing. 

“Students who need to isolate or quarantine are not required to observe that period in a university unit; some students choose to go home, others might choose a local hotel,” Broekhuizen wrote. “The university provides quarantine and isolation housing so students have a place to live, safely, outside of their regular residential community.” 

According to University data on quarantine and isolation housing, as of Monday morning, 20 people were in isolation with a positive test result and 39 were in quarantine after having been exposed or awaiting a test result. Nearly 10 percent of the quarantine and isolation housing was full. 

Unsanitary housing conditions

Four students told The Daily that upon arrival, their apartments at Northwood were unsanitary. LSA freshman Rochelle Smith said she found hair on the bed and on the floor as well as in the bathroom sink, in addition to cobwebs with spiders in the unit. 

Smith moved to Northwood after a student who tested positive reported her name to a contact tracer. She said she was told to quarantine for two weeks even if she tested negative. 

While she was provided with a number to call for complaints, she decided not to report the condition of her apartment. After one day at Northwood, Smith returned to her parents’ home to quarantine there. 

In a message to The Daily, Engineering sophomore Cate Sullivan said there was crusted, used soap in her shower and the apartment’s door lock was broken when she arrived. 

“It’s quarantine housing,” Sullivan said. “It probably should be cleaned well between residents.”

Broekhuizen outlined the cleaning procedures for quarantine rooms in her email to The Daily. 

“Student Life Facilities cleans and sanitizes each unit before and after each use, using EPA-regulated cleaners certified as effective against germs and viruses,” Broekhuizen wrote. “This is an enhanced cleaning protocol put in effect for all residential units since March. After a student leaves a quarantine room, Facilities disinfects the room 7 days later, after which time the next student may get assigned. The timeline is based on CDC guidelines.”

According to Sullivan, the Division of Public Safety and Security opened her apartment unit to check if someone was there when she moved in and later walked into her unit unannounced. 

“When I arrived, DPSS knocked and asked if anyone was inside, checked the apartment, then said, ‘It’s all set,’ like they didn’t know if it was gonna be empty or not,” Sullivan said, adding that later on, “DPSS randomly entered my apartment without knocking or asking. When they saw me, they said sorry and left without an explanation.”

Central Student Government President Amanda Kaplan and Vice President Saveri Nandigama wrote a letter to students living in quarantine housing giving them more details on cleaning procedures.

“Each room remains empty for a week after a student leaves quarantine and it is cleaned between students,” the letter said. “We are currently working to ensure that cleaning procedures are specified and documented upon a student’s arrival to quarantine housing.”  

According to the Campus Maize & Blueprint website, custodians clean the facilities’ high-traffic surfaces.

“These disinfectants will be regularly applied to frequently touched surfaces such as door knobs and handles, door push plates and crash bars, light switches, sink and faucet handles, elevator handles and more,” the website states.

Lack of supplies

Students moving to Northwood received an email from Eric Aiken, assistant director of student leadership for Michigan Housing, regarding their move-in. This email, obtained by The Daily, has a section titled “For your comfort” suggesting students pack items such as bedding, hand soap, bathroom toiletries, cooking materials and a trash can. Students were also told to bring two weeks of clothing because there are no laundry facilities available. 

Four students told The Daily they were given anywhere from 20 minutes to eight hours to pack their belongings before they were transported to Northwood by DPSS.

Burnstein posted a now-viral Tik Tok on Friday about the conditions in Northwood quarantine housing. As of Monday morning, Burnstein’s Tik Tok has racked up nearly 90,000 likes on Tik Tok. 

“We were given almost no supplies, we were given no food, no masks, no gloves, no microwave, no bedsheets, no soap, no cleaning supplies, no nothing,” Burnstein said in the Tik Tok. He also challenged University President Mark Schlissel to spend a night in quarantine housing.

Burnstein told The Daily he had about two to three hours to pack his belongings before being transported to Northwood by DPSS. He said he does not recall receiving an email about suggested items to pack.  

Music, Theatre and Dance freshman Joseph Bickel said he received limited supplies when he arrived in quarantine housing. When he requested items such as trash cans, paper plates, toilet paper and garbage bags, he said it took more than a day to get them. 

Kaplan and Nandigama addressed the lack of supplies in their letter. They said they are currently working on ensuring that students are provided with necessary supplies, including personal protective equipment, upon arrival.

“Students will now be provided with bar soap, toilet paper, shampoo, trash liners, trash can, sheets, pillow, pillowcase (and) microwaves,” the letter said. “Central Student Government is currently working with the Dean of Students office and MDining to provide individual pots and pans for each student.” 

Dissatisfaction with meal service

In addition to issues with the cleanliness of the rooms, students isolating expressed dissatisfaction with the meal service. Students are instructed to fill out a form every day by midnight to receive food the next day. 

If students arrive at Northwood past 12:30 p.m., they can submit a form for a late afternoon delivery that goes until 4 p.m., according to the meal request form. It is unclear whether students arriving at Northwood after 4 p.m. can submit a meal request for that night. 

“Please complete the form daily by Midnight the night before if you wish to have food delivered for the next day,” the form reads.

Sullivan said when she arrived at Northwood apartments at 7:45 p.m., she was given a bag of chips for dinner. 

Broekhuizen said Michigan Dining is currently working to streamline the system so students are able to order food up to 8 p.m. for doorstep delivery that evening.

Whether or not students without a meal plan are charged for University meal delivery while in quarantine housing was another source of confusion. According to the meal request form, if students request meals and do not have a meal plan, they will be billed $20 per day for each day they request food delivery. They are responsible for paying the charge “in a timely fashion.” 

However, the email from Aiken says the Office of the Dean of Students covers this charge, adding that those with a meal plan will see the charge for three meals per day deducted from their account. 

Initially, students were not provided microwaves. Students told The Daily that the food was delivered in plastic, so they were not able to heat it in the oven or on the stove if they did not have cooking supplies. 

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Courtesy of Rochelle Smith

In an email to students, faculty and staff on Friday, Schlissel noted some of the students’ complaints about quarantine conditions.

“(The University is) also addressing concerns about the quarantine and isolation housing we’re providing to students,” Schlissel wrote. “Our commitment to providing meal delivery is continuing, and Student Life staff check in with each student daily. From now on in response to feedback, we will be providing microwaves, and all Michigan Dining meals will come in microwavable packaging.”

As of Sunday, Bickel said he has not received his microwave. After calling DPSS Saturday evening, he was told he would not receive one until next week. 

“The food situation here is abysmal,” Bickel said. “We have been told we will be receiving microwaves, but I have not received mine yet. The food that they provide is low-grade and cold. Nothing like what we paid for in the dining halls. I have not brought myself to eat any of it. Most food deliveries occur close to noon, so there really is not a chance for breakfast. The vast majority of my meals have been through DoorDash.” 

Students unsatisfied with the meal plan can order food from online delivery services or local businesses. However, Burnstein said he worried local workers could be put at risk when delivering food, noting there are no signs indicating that the Northwood housing is filled with COVID-19 positive residents. The Daily confirmed the lack of signage.

“You'll regularly see, especially at meal times, just random delivery drivers walking around the apartment, because there’s no clear cut protocols like where to drop off food or interact with your driver, and it just puts the drivers at risk,” Burnstein said. 

Schlissel did not address safety precautions for meal delivery in his email. According to the meal request form, University-provided meals are delivered by a “University-appointed contractor.” 

Smith said she was concerned about the potential spread of the virus at Northwood.

“The man who came and delivered our meals, first of all, he wasn’t wearing a mask,” Smith said. “He opened the screen door and put the food behind the screen door, which made me a little uncomfortable because the person in the apartment across from me … actually had COVID and had a fever.”

When asked what precautions are in place so University staff members coming in contact with students do not spread the virus, Broekhuizen declined to offer details but clarified that meals are delivered to the students’ doorsteps and DPSS officers wear appropriate PPE. 

Protocol uncertainty

If students living off-campus need to quarantine or isolate, the Washtenaw County Health Department, in coordination with the University’s Environmental, Health and Safety Department, will determine if their living situation is fit to safely do so. If it is not, off-campus students may need to move to University-provided quarantine housing or return to their permanent residence as well. 

University Health Service tracks positive COVID-19 results. Students who are not tested at UHS can submit a form to notify the University they tested positive for the virus. 

Washtenaw County is also filtering test results in an attempt to identify students who test positive. Students who are known to have tested positive will be contacted by a contact tracer and asked for the names of those with whom they have had close personal contact. 

Sullivan had symptoms of COVID-19 and stayed at Northwood for one night until her test came back negative. UHS then authorized her to leave. Other students, including Bickel, were instructed to continue quarantining for 10 to 14 days, even if their test results were negative. 

According to Burnstein, the University is keeping students in the same complexes who tested positive for the virus and those who tested negative but both must continue quarantining.

“Basically there’s … four or five of these apartment clusters, and in each of these cluster apartments there’s students who are exposed but are negative or students who are just straight-up positive, and they’ve just been mixing these students together,” Burnstein said.  

The Daily interviewed students who tested positive and those who tested negative, both after being in contact with COVID-19 positive individuals and after developing symptoms similar to COVID-19. All these individuals were being housed in Northwood apartments. 

In her email to The Daily, Broekhuizen elaborated on how the Northwood apartments are being used for quarantine and isolation.

“There are five different neighborhoods in Northwood Community Apartments,” Broekhuizen wrote. “Units in Northwood I-III are used for isolation and quarantine housing. These are private apartments with no forced air system connecting them to other units.”

Broekhuizen also clarified that “students are free to leave their rooms, but should not access communal areas, in accordance with public health guidelines.” 

Burnstein’s roommate tested positive and reported his case to the University, listing Burnstein as someone with whom he had close personal contact. Soon after, Burnstein tested positive and has been isolating at Northwood since. 

Burnstein said the University’s procedure for reporting positive COVID-19 cases is not well-defined. 

“There was no clear-cut protocol for how to report this stuff,” Burnstein said. “It was very unclear … If he hadn’t reported it, I don’t know how they would have found out.”

Unclear communication from the University

UHS asks students to fill out an online form if they need to speak to someone about possibly having COVID-19. However, after filling out the form, two students told The Daily it took hours for someone to contact them. 

LSA senior Isha Kaushik got tested for COVID-19 off-campus. When her test came back positive, she and those she had recently been in contact with reached out to UHS and the Dean of Students Office for advice on how to proceed. However, they faced a confusing time delay on the next steps to take. 

“We didn’t get any call back from UHS after filling out the survey at all … I was waiting all day,” Kaushik said. “I got my diagnosis at like 9:30 (a.m.), I started my calls at 10 o’clock. Dean of Students called me around 4 p.m., but before they even called me, my roommate — who had been in touch with UHS after I had been — gets a call from her nurse practitioner who asks what’s going on …  She asked me for all the details and she was like, ‘Okay, you need to get going, you need to leave your apartment, you need to go to quarantine housing.’ I had no idea what the details of quarantine housing were.”

Smith also experienced a delay between when she talked to the University and when she was taken to go to quarantine housing. She said she spoke with the Dean of Students Office at 2:30 p.m. about moving to quarantine housing but was not picked up by DPSS until 10:30 p.m.

On the other hand, some students felt rushed by DPSS. In their letter, Kaplan and Nandigama explained new procedures for DPSS picking up students going to quarantine. 

“The Dean of Students Office will ask students to call DPSS when they are ready to move to quarantine housing in Northwood,” the letter said. “There should be no time limit for you to gather your things, and you have the right to ask for more time if you feel rushed.” 

In an email to The Daily, Heather Young, strategic communications director of DPSS, said DPSS has two minivans dedicated to transport students going to quarantine housing, though she said security vehicles can also be used if the vans are not available. She also specified no police vehicles are used to transport students to quarantine. 

When taking students to the North Campus apartments, DPSS officers are required to use personal protective equipment, such as masks, safety glasses, surgical gowns and gloves. Students are given masks and vehicles are disinfected after each transport. 

Sherry Levine, a parent of a University student, expressed concerns about the conditions of quarantine housing when she first saw posts on a parent Facebook page

After a meeting Friday morning with administrators in University Housing and DPSS, she said many of these issues are being addressed, particularly improving communication between DPSS, the University and students.

“There’s a case manager for every person now because that was also part of my concern,” Levine said in an interview with The Daily. “At the beginning, the students were feeling like they were put in quarantine but they weren’t being checked on. A lot of the issue was they would get a call but they would not recognize the number on their phone so they weren’t answering or they would be asleep so they weren’t answering … Now, they have case managers and the students can reach out as much as they need to. If there’s any issues, there (are) always ... phone numbers that they can call.” 

Outside assistance

After hearing about the conditions of Northwood housing through posts from quarantined students on social media, different groups volunteered to help the students. 

Members of the Graduate Employees’ Organization, who have been on strike since Tuesday, donated extra food and supplies from their strike to the students in quarantine.

Burnstein said he was grateful for the support from the graduate students, adding the delivery was conducted safely, with everyone wearing masks and gloves.

“Members of GEO have been coming by and giving the leftovers to us … they’ve seriously been saints to us over here,” Burnstein said. “I cannot shout them out enough …  They have been incredibly friendly and it’s a lot of really good stuff.”

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Courtesy of Maxwell Moore

Hundreds of parents have joined Levine’s “aMAIZEing Blue Crew” to deliver food and supplies to students in quarantine. 

Levine said parents are helping to ensure students in quarantine or isolation have what they need. The group intends to continue deliveries for students on- or off-campus who are sick this winter, whether with COVID-19 or other illnesses. 

“Within a day we had hundreds of local parent volunteers joining my efforts and now it’s over 500 local parents,” Levine said. 

Levine said to contain COVID-19 and maintain safe and clean quarantine housing, students need to do their part too, including providing names to contact tracers, properly disposing trash from their apartments and reporting unsatisfactory housing conditions to the University. 

“So, if they don’t know, they can’t fix it,” Levine said. “If they don’t know that you don’t have any garbage bags to throw your garbage, they can’t fix it. So the students need to need to be vocal, yes, but not just by complaining.”  

However, Kaushik said not being able to communicate with the University was part of the problem. She said she was frustrated with the process students have to navigate to get University assistance while they may be very sick. 

“I had to call people and be in charge of what I was doing,” Kaushik said. “If I was feverish or sick, it would have been a very difficult situation.” 

Daily Staff Reporters Emma Ruberg and Callie Teitelbaum can be reached at eruberg@umich.edu and cteitelb@umich.edu.


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