Hours before the University of Notre Dame suspended in-person classes to quell a growing COVID-19 outbreak among students, Clay Goldman walked into a campus testing center that didn’t have enough chairs for everyone awaiting results.
Goldman, a first-year law student, went to the center inside Notre Dame’s famed football stadium Tuesday afternoon because three of his track teammates contracted the virus, and he worried he’d been exposed.
But booking an appointment wasn’t easy.
The university’s sole testing site has been inundated since students returned in early August, identifying a total of 336 coronavirus cases as of Friday. Goldman said he called university health services multiple times beginning Monday afternoon to schedule a test but needed to leave messages when no one picked up. It wasn’t until late the next morning that he received an email saying he could come in, he said.
Notre Dame contends that most infections stem from two off-campus parties thrown by seniors. But cases have surged as students introduce the virus to new social groups, straining the school’s resources.
“I’m really just frustrated,” said Goldman, 21, of Indiana. “I feel like Notre Dame tried to put themselves out there, and it was really naive of the university to think students wouldn’t do normal college student things because that’s just what 18- to 22-year-olds do.”
As the university outside South Bend, Indiana, scrambled to shift classes online for at least two weeks in an effort to salvage in-person learning this semester, its predicament could be a cautionary tale for other colleges inviting students back this fall.
Even with months of planning and a program that tested 12,000 students before they returned, the pandemic is pushing the esteemed Catholic university to its limits and might yet force all students to go home.
Already, a wave of colleges have abandoned plans to offer in-person instruction before the start of the school year, encouraging students to learn remotely from home. And on Monday, the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill reverted to online classes after clusters of COVID-19 emerged in dorms and a fraternity house.
Notre Dame spokesman Paul Browne said the university’s biggest challenge is managing off-campus behavior. Browne also acknowledged the difficulty some students experienced getting tested but said the school has improved its processes.
While campus residents are largely following rules for masks and social distancing, Browne said, a small number of students could jeopardize the semester for everyone. The school’s health center has also seen increased demand, receiving 2,600 phone calls on Monday alone.
“Notre Dame has constructed this very strong chain of health precautions … and we’ve gotten overwhelming compliance with it, but any chain is only as strong as its weakest link,” Browne said. “The weak link for us materialized initially off campus, and so I think other universities have to find ways to address that.”
Some Chicago-area colleges will certainly try. Northwestern University, the University of Chicago and the University of Illinois schools still plan to open dorms and offer some level of in-person classes in a hybrid model.
Robin Kaler, a spokeswoman for the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, said the school’s saliva-based testing, which received federal approval Wednesday, will keep COVID-19 under control. Results from the saliva tests are available within six hours, and students participating in campus activities must get tested twice a week.
“There’s going to be an increase when students come back, but by testing those cases very quickly, using places to isolate or quarantine and making sure that we can keep that curve flat, we feel very confident that our approach can beat it,” Kaler said.
DePaul University and Loyola University Chicago are being more conservative. The schools recently scrapped plans to reopen fully because of rising infections in Chicago and a requirement for some out-of-state travelers to quarantine upon arriving in the city.
In a video address Tuesday afternoon, the Rev. John Jenkins, Notre Dame’s president, issued a stern warning to students as the campus saw its biggest one-day increase in COVID-19 cases.
Undergraduate classes, Jenkins announced, would be held online for at least two weeks. He also asked students living in apartments to stay away from campus and to limit social interactions.
“The objective of these temporary restrictions is to tame the spread of the virus so we can get back to in-person instruction,” Jenkins said. “If these steps are not successful, we will have to send students home, as we did last spring.”
A little before Jenkins’ announcement, Goldman learned he tested negative. He thought results from the rapid antigen test would be ready in about 15 minutes, but Goldman said he waited three hours since the testing center was busy. As he left, Goldman said he saw about 20 people lined up outside.
Students interviewed by The Chicago Tribune described an array of challenges related to testing. They said it was difficult to schedule appointments, that the health center’s hotline often went to voicemail and that sometimes inquiries weren’t returned for hours or days. Some students also questioned the thoroughness of the school’s contact tracing program, which is staffed by just 18 people.
These issues led some students to get tested off campus, even though that can hamper the university’s ability to account for all cases and to conduct contact tracing.
A public dashboard tallying the Notre Dame cases also reflects positive cases identified off campus, Browne said, but they are added retroactively and only if the school learns about them.
For Julia Nebiolo, a first-year graduate student in the college of business, getting tested off campus seemed to be the only option.
Nebiolo, 22, of Michigan, said she was running a fever Aug. 13 but couldn’t book an appointment at the stadium testing center. She said she called University Health Services twice and left a message but no one responded.
Nebiolo ultimately decided to visit a county site, where she tested negative. Still, she said, the stress of the situation is taking a toll, and she’s disappointed the university brought students to campus knowing young people have a proclivity to party.
“I’ve had several severe anxiety attacks about this whole thing,” she said. “You’re part of a community, and you can hurt members of your community without even knowing.”
Michael Dunn, a senior studying engineering, said he was aggravated that he wasn’t initially able to get a test despite possible exposure to the virus.
Dunn, 20, of Pittsburgh, said he tried contacting the school’s COVID-19 response line Aug. 11 after his girlfriend tested positive earlier that day but didn’t hear back for four days, despite calling two other times and leaving voicemails.
Dunn said he was told that, because he wasn’t showing any symptoms, he wasn’t eligible for a test. He said he ended up calling the contact tracing line and eventually was able to get two tests, which came back negative. He said he was given “no real directive” about how to proceed and was only able to get a test by “circumventing the system.”
“That’s my biggest concern, that you could have come into contact with someone and they’re not going to test you,” Dunn said. “And then how do you know where to go from there?”
Following similar concerns expressed by students on social media and Reddit, Notre Dame said Sunday that it would enhance testing protocols, expand surveillance testing beyond just athletes and make it easier for students to schedule appointments at the testing center.
Students who indicate on a daily health check that they have primary symptoms or prolonged contact with someone who tested positive will now be automatically booked for a test on campus.
“The number of cases we experienced in the first week of classes far exceeded our estimates, and it stressed the new systems we put in place to test and care for our community members,” university administrators said in a message to students Tuesday. “Despite dedicated staff working at all hours, we were not able to respond to all student calls in the personal way we pride ourselves on at Notre Dame.”
Dr. Mark Fox, deputy health officer for St. Joseph County, where Notre Dame is located, said the university might be able to contain the outbreak with several weeks of restrictions. The school isn’t seeing community transmission at a high enough level to make contact tracing unfeasible, he said.
“The magnitude of cases coming up this quickly certainly has exposed some process issues with respect to on campus testing and timeliness of contact tracing and things like that,” Fox said. “Those things could be scaled up.”
Notre Dame also began providing spaces for students who test positive to isolate, in private apartments and a university-operated hotel where food is being delivered. Some of the facilities lacked silverware, comforters and shower curtains, students said.
By the time Emma Shea tried to contact University Health Services on Aug. 12, some of her friends had been turned away from testing because they didn’t have certain COVID-19 symptoms.
She had also heard the hotline was slammed but didn’t realize it would take 28 hours for someone to call her back.
“It was definitely very nerve-wracking,” said Shea, who’s studying Spanish and sociology. “I didn’t even hear, ‘Oh you’ll have to wait.’ It was just nothing. I was planning on going somewhere else … urgent care or somewhere that wasn’t associated with the university.”
Shea, a senior from Texas living off campus, had a sore throat at the time and worried she was exposed by a friend who had COVID-19. She tested negative on campus Aug. 13 but went in again on Monday and tested positive. She’s now in isolation at Notre Dame’s Morris Inn.
Browne, the university spokesman, said Notre Dame recognizes the testing delays described by students during the first week of classes, but said they were not due to supply shortages, adding that there’s ”no limit on cost” either.
Students who don’t exhibit specific symptoms of COVID-19, such as loss of taste or fever, might be told to monitor their condition for another day before getting tested.
Justin Roy, a senior isolating at an off-campus apartment after testing positive, said he appreciates Notre Dame’s efforts to start the year in person and is sympathetic to the unprecedented challenges.
Roy said it was easy to arrange a test on campus after a housemate contracted COVID-19. He said he has few symptoms, except for fatigue.
The isolation accommodations aren’t perfect — his bathroom lacks a shower curtain and the beds are uncomfortable — but Roy said students shouldn’t expect to “get delivered to a five-star hotel” for getting COVID-19.
“We were the guinea pig school,” Roy said. “Notre Dame is absolutely doing everything they can. Whether or not resources are stretched thin is out of my place to say, but they are doing everything they can.”
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