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Health

No Wifi, No AC: Inside the Chaos of 1,400 COVID Cases at One College

The University of South Carolina started with a tidy coronavirus tracking dashboard and a few manageable cases. Then things started to unravel.
Hannah Smothers
Brooklyn, United States
September 10, 2020, 4:05pm
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On Wednesday, students at the University of South Carolina protested in front of school president Bob Caslen’s house, lying on the lawn and holding signs that read “IT’S ALL BOB’S FAULT” and “1,872 SICK,” referring to the total reported number of students who’ve been infected since August 1. The ominous graffiti message “1400+ SICK?! YOU’LL RUN OUT OF STUDENTS BEFORE I RUN OUT OF PAINT” appeared in white letters on campus buildings. According to several students who spoke to VICE, this is the result of  mismanaged testing and isolation protocol at the school, and the situation has only continued to spiral out of control.

Out of more than 1,000 colleges and universities that have reported positive coronavirus cases so far this school year, the University of South Carolina is struggling more than most. According to data from The New York Times last week, only the University of Alabama was trending higher, with 1,367 cases as of September 3

Despite employing a slew of safety tools—a COVID-19 dashboard that tracks active and past cases, designated isolation dorms, and multiple venues for on-campus testing—a recent spike in cases at U of SC proved beyond the school’s capabilities. Even when a university has seemingly prepared to handle the probability of student illness, one sharp uptick in active cases can cause a breakdown that puts responsibility into the hands of sick students to navigate a chaotic system that seems to exist more for the purposes of having a system at all than for actually keeping students safe.

Ana, a freshman at U of SC who asked to withhold her last name out of privacy concerns on campus, told VICE that she waited nearly two hours to take a saliva test on campus in late August. When her test came back positive, she waited to hear from a campus case worker with instructions on how to get to one of the school’s designated isolation dorms. She ultimately called school COVID hotline, after not hearing anything for 11 hours.

“After maybe five tries, I got on the line with someone who told me I had to wait for a call back from the case worker,” Ana said. “She told me that if I wanted food from the dining hall, I’d have to find someone to bring it to me.”

Eventually a case worker did call, and told Ana she’d be taken from her dorm hall to Bates West, an old dorm building on campus that’s long been scheduled to be demolished. “Around 5 p.m., a guy driving a golf cart came and picked me and my other positive friend up from our dorm and drove us over to the isolation dorm,” she said. “We were lucky we got a ride, because the next day, our other friend was told she had to find a ride to the dorm for an unknown reason; the only person we knew with a car was still waiting for their results, but took her anyway because it’s a mile away from where we were living.”

Ana is one of more than a thousand students who’ve been shuttled (or had to find their own rides) to isolation since people started arriving on campus in mid-August, ahead of the first day of classes on August 20. As of this week, according to data compiled and updated by the New York Times, U of SC has one of the highest numbers of coronavirus cases on any college campus in the United States.

Just before Labor Day weekend, on Friday, Sept. 4, the University’s coronavirus tracking dashboard showed more than 1,400 active student cases. That same day, school president Bob Caslen emailed all students and staff to say on-campus saliva testing would be temporarily suspended, “due to a key lab staffer becoming ill.” The lab, which had been testing around 1,200 people per day, was unable to function without the sick staffer.

Testing resumed Tuesday, after the four-day break, but at a much lower capacity; the school is now only able to test and process 200 people per day on the campus of more than 34,000. Caslen has already said testing on campus is unlikely to return to its original capacity.

The sharply diminished testing capacity may have resulted in a much lower active case number on the school’s public-facing COVID-19 dashboard. On Tuesday, when the active case number was updated for the first time since Friday (the school only updates the dashboard twice per week), active cases had dropped by more than half, down to 640. The lower number suggested that fewer students have COVID, but more likely, given that the school sharply reduced testing capacity, the system is not capturing a full picture of how coronavirus is spreading on campus..

The dashboard states that “University leadership uses this information to determine the campus alert level.” How a drastic drop in testing numbers, and, subsequently, in reported active cases, affects the quality of this information isn’t clear.

The school hasn’t named an explicit number of active or total cases that would trigger an immediate lockdown. The dashboard merely divides safety status into four categories, using a convoluted multifactor scoring system designed by the school: New Normal (a vague, if slightly ominous, way of saying operations as usual with some precautions in place), Low, Moderate, and High. Even as active cases topped 1,400, the alert level remained at “low.” Now that campus testing is significantly diminished, it’s unclear how reliable the “active cases” data is, and whether any of that data amounts to anything actionable. The University of South Carolina has yet to respond to multiple emailed requests for comment from VICE.

Maddie, a freshman at U of SC who asked to withhold her last name out of privacy concerns, tested positive and was isolated in Bates West. Like Ana, she had to contact the school herself about isolation protocol. “They knew I had tested positive, and the doctor had contacted me, but housing did not,” she said.

According to the U of SC students, they’re supposed to hear from a case worker upon receiving a positive COVID-19 test. When the system works properly, that case worker reaches out with instructions on where they’ll be isolated for the next seven to 10 days (these policies are not publicly posted anywhere, and the school did not respend to a request for comment). But as both Maddie and Ana found, the case workers were so overwhelmed by the severity of the school’s outbreak that they seemed to be operating on a backlog of phone calls. They weren’t moved into their isolation dorm in Bates West until the evening after they learned they had tested positive.

Bates West is one of two on-campus facilities where students who test positive are isolated. In Bates West, students are paired with roommates—when Ana and Maddie tested positive around the same time, they requested to be isolated together, and were allowed to do so. But once the rooms started filling up, students were paired with random roommates—strangers—to isolate with for 10-plus days.

“The building was musty and dusty, and the AC didn’t work, so our room was at 78.5 degrees most of the time,” Maddie said. “The only good part was we got to isolate together.”

Both Maddie and Ana were only required to isolate for ten days, and said students only have to quarantine for two weeks—the CDC-recommended length of time to quarantine or isolate for coronavirus—if they are in contact with a positive case, but don’t themselves test positive. They weren’t required to test negative to move out and return to their regular dorm rooms.

Jake, a freshman at U of SC who asked to omit his last name for privacy concerns, was sent to isolate at the National Advocacy Center, an on-campus building that holds lecture halls as well as hotel rooms, but not before a miscommunication landed him at Bates West.

“I got put on a bus, and it was actually really bad,” Jake told VICE. “I got a phone call earlier that day telling me I was going to the Bates dorm—that’s the one where you have a random roommate—so I got on the bus and I rode over, which probably took 30 minutes, took all my stuff inside, and then they told me I wasn’t supposed to be there. So I got back on the bus and had to drive around for 45 minutes while we picked up more people.”

Unlike his friends in Bates West, Jake isolated for seven days in a room by himself. He was delivered food in a big box each day around noon, but it was, as he described it, “usually nasty,” so he ended up ordering delivery most days.

Conor, a freshman who also asked to omit his last name for privacy concerns, was isolated in the NAC as well, and similarly described the supplied food as “pretty garbage.” Like Jake, he ordered delivery, but said the building had a cutoff time of 5 p.m., so he had to plan his meal times accordingly. Other logistical issues made simply attending online classes nearly untenable.

“The internet was horrible, I would have to log out of most of my classes and rejoin,” Conor said. He believes the building’s wifi was overloaded by the number of students logging into Zoom classes in their isolation rooms all around him. Jake, who was cleared to leave his own room a few days ago, was still catching up on coursework that got interrupted by the spotty wifi in the NAC when he spoke to VICE.

Echoing a grim tone of acceptance of his situation, as seen in the blossoming genre of student quarantine TikToks, Jake said he’s ultimately looking forward to the remainder of his first year of college.

“I love it here, and I can't complain, besides getting COVID,” he said. “But now that it's over with I’m really excited for the rest of the semester.”

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