COVID cases overflow Quarantine Housing alongside flu

“It is imperative that we avoid a situation where our inventory of dedicated [Isolation and Quarantine] housing beds is overwhelmed by demand,” an email from Student Affairs leadership explained to residential students on Wednesday. By then, however, the situation was impossible to avoid: Isolation and Quarantine (IQ) Housing was at 105.17 percent capacity, according to the COVID-19 dashboard.

COVID-positive students with no or mild symptoms are now expected to stay in their on-campus housing assignment and “isolate-in-place,” while “residential students at higher risk and/or with moderate-to-severe symptoms will continue to be temporarily relocated to our dedicated IQ housing,” according to the email.

The university does not plan to expand IQ Housing. However, students living with a COVID-positive roommate who test negative for the virus have the option to relocate to a hotel by reaching out to their Housefellow. They can also temporarily stay with a friend or family member.

After the isolate-in-place measures were introduced, IQ Housing stabilized to 65 percent capacity on Friday. Daryl Weinert, the university’s COVID-19 coordinator, told The Tartan that the university plans to report the number of students isolating in place. The data is expected to be published on the COVID dashboard later this week. On April 13, the dashboard reported that 94 students were positive. The case count has not increased since then, suggesting a discrepancy in reporting, because IQ Housing has 61 more beds available than the number of positive students on campus (55), according to the dashboard.

In addition to Shirley Apartments and Margaret Morison 101, which comprise the 116 IQ beds, there are COVID-positive students living in Fairfax, Hamerschlag, Donner, Mudge, Morewood Gardens, and other residence halls. The university said they would not provide a list of dorms with students isolating in place because of the daily changes in case counts. Carnegie Mellon’s quarantine period is 10 days.

Many of the COVID-safety vending machines were completely depleted of their tests the day after they were restocked. Weinert told The Tartan that the machines, which are restocked on Monday, Wednesday, and Fridays, have 250 test kits each. The uptick in use comes as many students are sick, but not just with COVID. The email to dorm residents acknowledged that most students’ current COVID symptoms “are actually milder than those associated with influenza that is also currently circulating in our community.”

The email nodded to residents’ concerns about living with COVID-positive roommates, but reasoned that “given the highly transmissible nature of the current variants, and the fact that most people who test positive were contagious two days before symptoms appeared, it is likely that roommates have already been exposed to the virus.”

First-year Mia Constantin, who tested positive on April 12 and also has the flu, is staying in Shirley Apartments IQ Housing. She is unsure if her symptoms — high fever, head congestion, persistent cough — are from COVID, the flu, or both. Her coursework has been manageable because most classes are being held virtually, if they are still being held at all. “So many people have COVID that [canceling or going online] has just become the easiest option,” she wrote in an email to The Tartan.

COVID-positive students who live off-campus are assigned a health liaison to support them during their isolation period. Abigail Macy, a senior studying violin performance and international relations, elected to have her liaison notify her professors that she was positive. She said the faculty member also directed her “towards food and prescriptions … [like] delivery options at Target and Whole Foods.”

Chelsea Tang, who lives off-campus with a roommate who tested positive on April 11, described the anxiety of ambiguity to The Tartan: “Not knowing is definitely not as bad as having COVID but it was heavy on my mind until I got tested.” Tang tested negative on Tuesday after her roommate tested positive on Monday.

The turnover rate for Tartan Testing was something Macy, who tested on April 12 and got results the next day, appreciated. After experiencing mild symptoms, she took two rapid tests, both of which came back negative. As she waited for her PCR, she kept her mask on while continuing to go to class. “It’s good that the Tartan Test came back so quickly, so that I could stop going to school,” Macy explained in an interview with The Tartan.

Weinert attributed the COVID outbreak to the Omicron subvariant BA.2, which is characterized by its high transmissibility and low symptom severity. The sudden spread of COVID, the flu, and the common cold come after a number of recent changes on campus. One was the mask mandate removal on March 28. During that week, The Tartan observed that the majority of students (about 58 percent) choose to continue wearing face coverings indoors. By Carnival weekend, however, most students opted out of masks. A week later, many prospective families visited and alumni returned to campus for Carnival. The three-day weekend also allowed students to spend more time together in higher-density groups.