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University Of Iowa Students Detail 'Disappointing,' 'Awful' Experiences In Quarantine, Isolation Dorm Rooms

The University of Iowa set aside between 250 and 300 dorm rooms for students who need to isolate or quarantine because of COVID-19.

Wyatt Hellman had been on campus for only two days when he received a call from the University of Iowa informing him he had been exposed to COVID-19.

“I knew it wasn’t going to be a normal year because obviously there’s a lot more restrictions with the pandemic,” Hellman said, adding that he didn’t expect this kind of a call to come after two “fairly normal” days of his freshman year.

Five days before Hellman, of Fort Madison, moved into his dorm room in Daum Hall last Sunday, his roommate tested positive for COVID-19.

“Obviously that was a big worry,” Hellman said.

Hellman's roommate was re-tested a couple days later after his initial results. The new results came back negative and he was cleared to go to college. He moved in last Saturday and Hellman moved in the next day, but they didn’t stay there long.

Two days after Hellman moved in, the UI’s housing department called him, saying he would need to quarantine for two weeks in another dorm, Catlett Hall, because of his roommate's initial positive test. His roommate was told he would need to isolate in Burge Hall until Thursday, Aug. 20, 10 days after the positive test.

Hellman received an email with instructions about his residence hall reassignment that he shared with IPR. The email informed him how to check out of his dorm and check into the new one. The email also contained a packing list and a list of items that University Housing and Dining provided in the quarantine and isolation dorms: Bedding, towels, a refrigerator and microwave, a trash can, liners, and more. He was told meals would be delivered daily when ordered.

The email also said he must be able to carry everything he chooses to bring to the dorm.

“That ended up being a pretty stressful process,” Hellman said, adding that he came in contact with “plenty of surfaces,” including door handles and elevators during the move and was not tested for COVID-19.

When he arrived at the instructed time, the room was locked, even though the email he received said it would be unlocked. He stood in the hallway for 20 minutes waiting for someone to come unlock the room.

All of the items that the university had said would be in his room were there, except for trash bags. For the first two days in quarantine, Hellman put his trash into a couple of plastic bags he had brought with him. Hellman said the university provided him with trash bags Thursday evening.

Meals were “inconsistent,” on his first full day in quarantine, he said. Both he and a neighbor failed to receive one meal each that they had ordered. Since then, all the meals he has ordered have arrived.

There are six individual bathrooms in the hall, but initially no instructions on which bathrooms students who are potentially sick should be using. As of late Thursday, the university put up signs on the bathroom doors pairing them with the room numbers of the three people living in quarantine in Hellman’s wing, he said.

Both Hellman and his roommate reported seeing no signage in hallways of their temporary dorms that indicated that their living spaces were for quarantine or isolation, though a university spokeswoman gave a different response. UI spokeswoman Anne Bassett said in an email, “signage in the halls indicates areas that are set aside for quarantine/isolation.”

Hellman acknowledged he could have gone home to quarantine, rather than stay on campus, but it would have been “annoying” to move a lot of his stuff back home and then back to campus two weeks later. He lives an hour and a half away.

“It’s definitely not been fun,” Hellman said. “The first two nights I was here on campus, I met up with people in the residence hall, people on my floor. I got to know them pretty well.”

He continued, “People were starting to form friendships and you just get taken away. And you miss those first two weeks of a really formative experience meeting other people, finding other people who share interests with you.”

He has still been able to play games over Zoom with people from Daum Hall. Everyone on his floor has been supportive, he said. They brought him food on Wednesday night when a meal didn’t arrive.

‘It was AWFUL!’: Student’s isolation experience circulates around university

A freshman who theIowa City Press-Citizen identified as Annie Gaughan detailed her experience in a post that began on Instagram and has beenuploaded online. Gaughan wrote she tested positive for COVID-19 and was moved into an isolation room in Currier Hall.

“After getting to my room, it was AWFUL!” she wrote on social media. “It was dirty, gross, and disgusting. I wouldn’t put my worst enemy in those rooms.”

She said she asked to be moved into another room but was told it was the only one available. Her parents could either come pick her up or the university could “ask her to leave the residence halls,” she reported.

The “overwhelming chaos” caused a panic attack and she almost passed out, she wrote. Paramedics were called.

Gaughan ended up sleeping on the floor of the room across the hall, which she said was “still really dirty but less dirty than the first room.”

“I woke up the next morning to ants crawling on my blankets on the floor,” Gaughan wrote on social media. “I was mortified.”

Gaughan said she considered transferring schools because of the experience.

“I was expecting so much more from Iowa,” she wrote. “They are telling students and parents they are prepared for covid, but they lied.”

The UI issues an apology

Von Stange, the UI’s assistant vice president for student life and senior director of university housing and dining,responded to Gaughan’s account with an apology email to students that was published online: “The experience described does not meet the expectations of the university, Housing and Dining, and most importantly you, the students. For that, I am deeply sorry.”

He said the university is “committed to improving processes and procedures within our system and across campus.”

Wyatt Hellman, the freshman who was moved into a quarantine dorm, said Gaughan’s account is “definitely worse” than his own experience, which he called “disappointing.” He said he relates to feeling let down by the school.

He said he feels “let down by all these people that have spent the last five months trying to protect the population at the university. It really seems that if the measures are as half-baked as these ones were that we’re not going to be here very long.”

In a statement, spokeswoman Anne Bassett said University Housing and Dining will continue to look over and improve the situation and processes around the dorms “as needs dictate.”

“The university is committed to the safety and well-being of its students, faculty, and staff and has implemented recommended best practices for limiting exposure to the COVID-19 virus in a campus setting,” Bassett wrote.

Universities set aside rooms or entire buildings for isolation and quarantine

The University of Iowa did not require students to get tested before arriving on campus. Iowa State University required students moving into dorms and on-campus apartments to be tested. ISU said on Aug. 18 that175 people tested positive for the coronavirus.

The UI set aside between 250 and 300 rooms in residence halls around campus for isolation and quarantine, while ISU has 150 rooms for isolation and 250 for quarantine. Von Stange, UI’s assistant vice president for student life and senior director of university housing and dining, said in an earlier interview with IPR that dispersing the rooms around campus made it easier to deliver meals to students from various marketplaces, without stressing an individual one. The UI also wanted to have dorms available for students to move into around campus that were close to dorms they were already living in.

“There's also certainly a perception that you had a residence hall that was only for students who were isolated or quarantined, that that would give a negative perception,” Stange said. “And if it was further away from the students were ... certainly that it’s possible that students wouldn't report it because they didn't want to have to move from this building to that building.”

In contrast, Iowa State University set aside an entire residence hall, Linden Hall, for students who need to isolate, and Oak-Elm Hall for students who need to quarantine.

ISU alsodescribed a more hands-on process in helping students move into quarantine or isolation dorms, compared to Hellman’s account of moving to a quarantine dorm at the UI. Students at ISU are asked to put the belongings they want to take with them in the center of their room. A moving team wearing PPE gathers up the belongings and transports them and the student to the isolation or quarantine dorm. They then sanitize the room the student came from.

Asked if the UI thinks it would’ve worked better had they dedicated entire residential buildings to quarantine or isolation like ISU, Bassett said the school’s quarantine and isolation protocols “follow the latest guidance” of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Iowa Department of Public Health and UI experts.

Editor's Note: Hellman's roommate is a minor and his family has requested that his name not be used in this article. This story was updated on Sunday, Aug. 23. in accordance with that request.

Katie Peikes was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio from 2018 to 2023. She joined IPR as its first-ever Western Iowa reporter, and then served as the agricultural reporter.