Quarantine Housing fills with post-break COVID spike

On Feb. 11, first-year student Kyle Hynes’ world shrunk to the size of a Fairfax apartment. He woke up to a COVID-positive PCR notification and moved into Isolation and Quarantine (IQ) Housing by mid-afternoon.

After a month of winter break, Carnegie Mellon students returned to Pittsburgh with COVID in tow. Community cases rose by over 500% between December and January, totalling 942 positive individuals. More than 8% of students, both on and off campus, tested positive for the coronavirus in January.

Students living on campus who test positive must move into Isolation and Quarantine (IQ) Housing. Between Feb. 16 and Feb. 18, the Carnegie Mellon data showed that IQ Housing capacity dropped from 68% to 40%. However, the same number of beds (116), were reported to be available on both days.

In an email to The Tartan, Interim Managing Director of Communications Shilpa Bakre said that Margaret Morrison #101 and Shirley Apartments are being used for IQ Housing. “Should more space be needed to meet demand, contingency plans will be implemented,” she wrote. University data suggests that 60% of IQ Housing is available, but Fairfax Apartments is also being used. Some of the building’s residents (who do not have COVID) said they were not informed of this policy. One resident speculated that, with so few apartments available, COVID-positive students are likely interspersed on the same floor as regular tenants.

Students can expect to find snacks, toiletries, and “an activities book with crayons or colored pencils in your room upon arrival,” according to the IQ Housing page. In an interview with The Tartan, first-year student Eric Hernandez specifically noted his appreciation for the "adult activities workbook that included word searches and crosswords... It was pretty cool."

In addition to the crafts, Hynes was greeted with frozen meals supplemented by “fresh-ish food throughout” his stay. Seven days with no distractions beyond a roommate, a window, and whatever can be found on the internet. The lack of structure each day made it difficult for Hernandez to stay on top of his work. “My professors have been nothing but accommodating,” Hynes explained to The Tartan. But the opportunity to get ahead on coursework felt impossible. Instead, he kept pace with his classes and spent his free time with video games, music, and sleep.

"Out of 10," Hernandez wrote to The Tartan, "I would rate my experience with CMU Quarantine Housing a 4.5-5." He appreciated the "spacious apartment, which was a nice upgrade from the small single" he was assigned, "plenty of snack and drinks... and a relatively quiet building." These benefits weigh against the challenges of social isolation and mediocre meals. "I also didn't appreciate how the dining menu always offered a bagel for breakfast and I... did not receive a single bagel until my fifth day there." Not a single bagel.

Hynes understands the stringent COVID-19 mitigation efforts made by the university. Plus, he wrote, “While it would be nice to be able to go for a walk or to have the bagels come with cream cheese, I could certainly imagine a worse quarantine arrangement.” As loneliness and boredom push the second hand forward, Hynes watches the clock. “I'm excited for the minute after midnight Saturday morning, when I can finally leave this place behind.”

Once Hernandez had settled in to IQ Housing, no checked whether he stayed in his room. "The quarantine guidelines," which mandate that students do not leave their apartment, "would be easy for someone to sidestep," Hernandez explained. Yet he "appreciate[d] the trust and lack of security measures... [which] would have made an already... uncomfortable situation even more miserable."

One in every five students eligible for a third dose have not received one, despite the university-wide booster mandate. Students were required to submit documentation of the third shot by Feb. 16. Carnegie Mellon will “follow up directly with those who have not yet uploaded their documentation,” Bakre wrote. Faculty and staff eligible for the third dose have reported booster rates of 91% and 85%, respectively.

The University has moved from a modified to transitional status on campus, allowing classes to be delivered in person rather than over Zoom. As of Jan. 31, this also shortened the isolation period for COVID-positive students from ten days to seven.

Carnegie Mellon has held three vaccine clinics since January, according to Bakre. They were all fully booked. Future clinics will be held on Feb. 25, March 15, March 30, and April 13.

To fortify pandemic safety efforts, Carnegie Mellon introduced KN95 vending machines in the University Center (UC), Mellon Institute, Baker Hall, and Purnell Center for the Arts. The pilot project has also begun to provide rapid tests. The UC machine was empty on Feb. 20.