Inside the COVID-19 isolation rooms on campus

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An empty room in Stewart-Cleland Hall at Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA. Sept. 24, 2021. Theodore Tang/The Occidental

After his first week on Occidental’s campus, Joshua Biggs (first year) tested positive for COVID-19 Aug. 30 and spent his first week of classes in isolation. Biggs said he took a rapid test at the Arthur G. Coons (AGC) administrative building because he had a headache and a sore throat. He said he returned to his dorm room after testing positive to collect his belongings and then moved to a room in Stearns Hall — equipped with a private bathroom, sink, microwave and refrigerator. He isolated there for ten days.

Joshua Biggs (first year) at Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA. Sept. 22, 2021. Theodore Tang/The Occidental

If a student tests positive for COVID-19, they are immediately placed in isolation and given a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test to confirm their results. Students stay in isolation rooms for 10–14 days, depending on how long their symptoms last, according to Interim Director of Emmons Wellness Center Adelina Lopez. If a student is already living in a single room with a private bathroom, the college administration may allow a student to isolate in their own room, Lopez said.

According to Lopez and the college’s Quarantine & Isolation Plan, students undergo isolation when they test positive for COVID-19, regardless of symptoms or vaccination status. Lopez said they stay in a designated isolation room, do not have public contact and have their meals delivered.

Unvaccinated students who have had close contact exposure — were next to a COVID-19 positive person unmasked for a total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period — remain in their residence with limited public contact, according to Lopez.

Lopez said vaccinated individuals who have had close contact exposure undergo modified quarantine protocols. According to Lopez and the college’s Quarantine & Isolation Plan, modified quarantine protocols allow individuals to participate in classroom activities, but they must avoid large gatherings, wear their face masks at all times and take another test three to five days after exposure. According to the Quarantine & Isolation Plan, if the individual then tests negative, they may stop quarantining seven days after exposure.

According to Isaiah Thomas, director of Residential Education & Housing Services (REHS) and assistant dean of students, REHS has a list of rooms for emergencies throughout different dorms on campus.

Isaiah Thomas, assistant dean of students and director of Residential Education & Housing Services (REHS), at Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA . Sept. 17, 2021. Theodore Tang/The Occidental

“There are rooms that are ideal for isolation specifically,” Thomas said. “Our goal for an isolation room is to have a bathroom so a student can limit their movement and potential spread.”

According to Thomas, there are approximately 40 beds and 20 rooms designed for COVID-19 isolation.

Students in isolation can order up to three meals at once through the GET app, and a staff member, either dining staff or Campus Safety, drops the food off at their door, according to Thomas. Biggs said he received all of his meals daily at 11 a.m.

Biggs said food was the main thing he would change about his experience. Biggs said he felt the options were repetitive, and he got tired of the choices of salad, salmon and chicken from the Marketplace Grill Station, and burritos for breakfast.

According to Thomas, REHS asks students not to leave the isolation room unless in the case of an emergency such as a fire alarm. A student may contact REHS, Emmons Wellness Center or the Campus Safety Office if they have any concerns or would like permission to leave their room.

If a student wants to isolate off-campus, they coordinate that decision with Emmons, according to Thomas. Students may choose to isolate themselves off-campus as long as they have a safe method of transportation — ideally a private vehicle to prevent further spread of the virus, Lopez said via email.

According to Marty Sharkey, vice president of communications and institutional initiatives and co-chair of the COVID Operations Group (COG), the college decided to host students who tested positive for COVID-19 on campus to alleviate feelings of isolation.

Marty Sharkey, vice president of communications and institutional initiatives at Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA. Sept. 17, 2021. Theodore Tang/The Occidental

“It’s tough enough for a student if they have to go to isolation,” Sharkey said. “If you can isolate them safely on campus so they don’t feel like they’re outside of the community, I think that’s a good thing.”

REHS and Emmons staff do not check on the student in person, but according to Lopez, medical providers with Emmons have routine online visits with students in isolation.

Biggs said his experience in isolation was depressing, slow and boring.

“To be honest, [it was] kind of depressing,” Biggs said. “I was by myself and my own thoughts. It was weird.”

If needed, Emmons representatives may refer students to virtual counseling visits through Emmons or BetterHelp, Lopez said via email. According to Lopez, Emmons also provides individuals in isolation with the phone number to the Occidental 24/7 Confidential Hotline for medical and counseling support services.

Lopez said when a student’s symptoms of COVID-19 are manageable with medicine, Emmons will deliver medications to the student’s room as needed. If a student’s physical condition worsens, Emmons conducts daily virtual visits with the student, Lopez said via email.

Sharkey emailed students and faculty Sept. 20 to report that for the week ending Sept. 17, there were 1,130 tests, no new positive cases and no current cases being managed by Emmons staff.