COVID-19 cohort outbreak in Chester Hall places entire residence building in quarantine, over a dozen students testing positive

By Erica Quinones

News Editor

The Washington College Response Team announced a COVID-19 cohort outbreak within Chester Hall on Feb. 12. 

According to the Response Team’s email, 10 students living in Chester Hall tested positive for COVID-19 between Feb. 10 and Feb. 12, constituting a cohort outbreak — or when five or more related COVID-19 cases appear across 14 days. Another email on Feb. 19 reported that the number of related positive COVID-19 cases rose to 14.

All students who tested positive for COVID-19 were moved immediately to isolation in Corsica, according to Vice President of Student Affairs Dr. Sarah Feyerherm. The students in Chester who are not COVID-19 positive will quarantine-in-place until Feb. 26, receiving a surveillance test early in the week of Feb. 22.

This outbreak comes after weeks of low COVID-19 rates on campus. 

According to the COVID Dashboard, between the weeks of Jan. 18 and Feb. 1, the College reported three positive COVID-19 tests. Those three cases were related to a total of five quarantined students who were under observation after having close contact with a COVID-positive peer.

In the week of Feb. 8, those numbers increased to 10 new positive cases and a total of 48 students in quarantine. The additional five positive tests during the week of Feb. 15 places current rates at 16 positive cases and 34 students in quarantine as of Feb. 22. 

While this outbreak led to a sharp increase in WC’s COVID-19 positivity rates, only Chester Hall is under Red Alert. The rest of campus remains on Yellow Alert, denoting that the campus’s risk factors for COVID-19 spread are trending higher, but “the virus is [not] uncontrolled,” according to the WC website.

For the students quarantining in Chester, the protocol is stricter than the initial quarantine which students underwent upon arrival, according to Dr. Feyeherm.

The quarantined students in Chester are not allowed to leave the building with the exception of chaperoned outdoor exercise. The Quarantine & Isolation Team and Residential Life will deliver students’ mail and two meals a day; assist them in receiving medications and other essential items; and provide regular check-ins. Additionally, students will be required to schedule times for laundry and must wear masks at all times unless they are in their private room. 

Interim Dean of Students Greg Krikorian said Residential Life is working with Dining Services to meet students’ dietary needs, make sure their options are well-rounded, and assure students are fed enough.

According to sophomore Ella Sanvee, a resident assistant in Chester, students are taking the quarantine hard.

“I don’t really think it’s even lack of, you know, being with other people and, you know, seeing faces. It’s mostly the food and not being able to get fresh air as much as they would like and having to depend on someone else to basically do everything for them,” she said.

However, not all students are quarantining on campus.

The option to return home was offered during a Feb. 13 meeting between Student Life and the families of Chester Hall residents. 

During the meeting, students and families were told that if students wanted to return home for quarantine, and understood the risks of the trip, they could fill out an application on WebAdvisor. Students who requested the temporary leave would be permitted to return home beginning Monday, Feb. 15.

Sanvee herself is one such student who decided to quarantine at home. 

The Chester quarantine is Sanvee’s second experience in quarantine within a month. Having been in quarantine from Jan. 22 to Feb. 5, she experienced a week of normal operations before quarantining again.

When the news broke that the entire hall would quarantine, Sanvee said she was uncommittedly considering leaving campus, mostly due to the food in her first quarantine.

“I remember this one day in my first quarantine, for lunch they brought chips and like cold, gooey, canned cheese, and like unseasoned vegetables,” Sanvee said. “I just remember crying myself to sleep. I was like, in what world does this suffice as a full and healthy meal?”

While the food-related struggles played a major factor in her return home, it was Sanvee’s mother who convinced her of the plan.

“I was just having a conversation with my mom that morning, and she was like, ‘Girl, just come home for like two weeks.’ So, I sent out the application and got my car and left. And I know that I’m in a privileged place to be able to do that, and a lot of people would like to come home, but they don’t have the means, or they’re scared that they would go home and like, you know, bring it back to their parents or something,” Sanvee said.

For the remaining students on campus, questions revolve around how campus cannot only prevent the spread of this outbreak to other cohorts, but also how WC can prevent future outbreaks.

According to Dr. Feyerherm, this first cohort outbreak provides an opportunity for WC to implement their planned process and reinforce that they have a system to prevent the spread of outbreaks.

The outbreak also stands as a reminder for students that they must continue following guidelines, according to Dr. Feyerherm.

“I think people were getting, you know, just a little too optimistic. And, you know, they had probably loosened up a little bit. So, this is a good reminder,” Dr. Feyerherm said.

This reminder of the importance of following WC’s COVID-19 guidelines is especially vital because it appears the outbreak in Chester was related to maskless interactions between students in public spaces, according to Dr. Feyerherm. 

While hypothetical interactions between maskless students in suite common rooms, hallways, and the laundry room were evoked during the Feb. 13 Chester debrief, students should remember how difficult it is to track an invisible virus.

For many students in Chester, they never saw the outbreak approaching.

Sanvee said that she had “zero inkling that anything like this [outbreak] would happen.”

“No one told me anything. The only reason I found out [about a positive case] was because one of my residents, he was freaking about accidentally finding out someone else on our floor had it,” Sanvee said. “He was freaking out and he sent me a message and he told me what had happened. And then later on, when this had all gone down, more residents were telling me how they were quarantining in Corsica, or they had been suitemates with someone who was quarantining in Corsica.”

Beyond the virus simply being invisible, patterns of how the virus spreads may also lead to the apparent surprise of an outbreak.

According to Krikorian, there are patterns as to how COVID-19 spreads on college campuses. Primarily it spreads through friend groups, clubs, organizations, teams, and traveling off-campus together for food. 

This isolated spread was experienced by freshman Willow (who is using a pseudonym), who tested positive for COVID-19 and was in isolation at the time of this article.

Willow’s experience with the virus began and ended with their suitemates. 

At first, one of Willow’s suitemates (referred to under the pseudonym Lilly) was exposed to COVID-19 by an athletic teammate. While Lilly began quarantining, neither Willow nor their third suitemate (here referred to under the pseudonym Rose) were considered primary contacts. Thus, neither were required to quarantine.

However, while Lilly was negative, Rose later developed symptoms, including a cough.

When Rose received a rapid test, she came back positive for COVID-19 and was moved to isolation, leaving Willow and Lilly to quarantine in their Chester suite. 

The following day, Willow received a COVID-19 test from Health Services which returned negative. However, as another day passed, they awoke with a sore throat.

“I already wasn’t feeling that hot. There’s a point where you feel like you’re going to be sick. You just feel sick. You’re like something ain’t right here in the flesh suit,” Willow said. “It’s like the tenants of my body are calling the landlord saying, ‘Hey, everything’s leaking. What’s happening?’” 

Three phone calls later, Willow was given a rapid COVID-19 test. This time it came back positive.

Beyond following the guidelines established by WC, Krikorian said that honesty is an important part of containing the virus.

“If a student tests positive, it’s vital that we know who they may have had close contact with, because that allows us to reduce the risk for others,” Krikorian said.

Dr. Feyerherm said that when WC asked students to sign the COVID Code of Conduct, they asked students to not only accept responsibility for themselves but the community.

Upholding that pledge may include approaching fellow students if they see someone who is not complying with safety measures.

“There’s some really great ways of doing that, that aren’t offensive,” Dr. Feyerherm said. “Somebody steps outside of their room into the hallway and you see them without a mask, you can say something like, ‘Oh, let me give you a minute so you can get your mask.’ That’s certainly a different approach from ‘Why aren’t you wearing your mask? I’m calling Public Safety.’”

Students who do not comply with health policies face a tiered system of reprimand. 

Level one offenders who violate minor policies — such as not physical distancing or wearing a mask improperly — may be fined $50, put on probation, or experience restricted access to campus facilities, according to the COVID Code of Conduct.

Level two offenders — who may be repeat level one violators, bring guests on campus, host an unregistered on-campus gathering, or attend on/off-campus gatherings of any size that violates regulations — may be fined $100, be removed from campus housing, or be suspended.

Level three offenders — who might refuse the College’s compliance requests, fail to notify the College of a COVID-19 diagnosis or exposure, or fail to comply with quarantine or isolation requirements — may experience a multi-term suspension or expulsion.

Krikorian said they have currently had about 20 to 25 level one offenders who were addressed with an educational approach.

While some discussed their hopes that the outbreak would serve as a learning experience for students, Sanvee said she hopes this can be a teaching opportunity for the College as well.

“I just hope that this is a teaching lesson, and they’re more prepared in the future, and they aren’t so like, I don’t know, so cold and removed about the entire situation,” Sanvee said. “Like, just the emails and the meeting that night, the way they said everything was so distant and stoic. You literally have kids who tested positive for this deadly disease and kids who might have been exposed to it, and we had like 10 minutes to ask questions that first night. Everyone was freaking out. So, I just hope that they’re more prepared in the future.”

This period proves distressing for many students, but some recognize and appreciate their role in protecting the health of peers.

“You have to understand that this is the sort of sacrifice you have to make to keep everyone else healthy,” Willow said. “Like you know what…I was so afraid because me and my friends had hung out for like two hours outside…I was so freaking worried that I had infected someone by accident. And when their results came back negative, that made me so happy. Like I may have been jealous they got to meet [the Bookplate] cat without me. But, God, am I glad they can do it, even if it means I have to be in here.”

Featured Photo caption: A cohort outbreak in Chester Hall was announced by email on Feb. 12. Initially, 10 cases of COVID-19 were identified within the hall’s residents. That number has grown to 14 by Feb. 19. Photo Courtesy of Washington College.

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