Three UNC students juggle life in quarantine, after being tested for COVID-19

By Anne Tate

After UNC-Chapel Hill first-year student Fiona Wallace learned her roommate at Granville Towers tested positive for COVID-19, she experienced a chaotic 24 hours of quick decisions, poor communication and increasing uncertainty.

Fiona spent over two hours in the coronavirus testing line at Campus Health Services after she frantically made an appointment for a COVID-19 test. Students waited for so long that staff brought them water.

When Fiona reached the front of the line after her first hour of waiting, she was redirected to the regular Campus Health entrance. She was not the only one turned away from the designated coronavirus testing line.

“I figured I’d go somewhere separate from the kids going to their physical therapy appointments,” Fiona said.

The transition into on-campus quarantine.

That same day, before receiving her results, Fiona stripped her bed and packed as much as she could carry – two weeks’ worth of clothes, food, bedding and school supplies – and moved to Craige North Residence Hall, UNC’s on-campus quarantine dorm.

After she realized UNC only provided three, 16-ounce bottles of water a day, Fiona’s roommate dropped off her Brita filter.

For Fiona, the quarantine dorms offered little more comfort than the pack of “Lunch To-Go” tuna UNC provided for dinner. The hallways were filled with an eerie silence, void of people. Every afternoon, she had to guess when her three meals for the day were left outside of her door – no one ever knocked. She showered twice a day, just for fun. Fiona was lonely; she spent a lot of time looking out the window at people walking by on the street below.

Occasionally, the silence was broken.

“Sometimes, you could hear people crying,” she said.

One day, Fiona heard voices outside of her door. She looked through the peephole and saw a group of staff dressed in hazmat suits cleaning out the room across the hall. She felt like people were afraid of her, and she didn’t even know if she had COVID-19 yet.

Another time, a friend of Fiona’s, who was also quarantined in Craige North, developed a 101-degree fever. He had no medicine, so she left a Tylenol wrapped in a paper towel outside of his door.

Fiona had no human interaction for four days – and it would have been 14 if she hadn’t tested negative. 

“If I kept doing that, my mental health would have gotten so much worse,” she said. “I thought, ‘I can’t be alone like this.’”

Fiona knows students who actively avoided the quarantine dorms.

“I know so many people in Granville who definitely had symptoms, but their suitemates didn’t want them to get tested because they didn’t want to get sent home or moved,” she said. “Some people were mad at my roommate for getting tested.”

Fiona thinks there are more cases than what’s been reported because some people are ignoring their symptoms and not going to Campus Health.

A UNC senior felt similarly – she didn’t trust UNC to provide adequate food or psychological care in the quarantine dorms.

When she went to Campus Health for a COVID-19 test, she lied and said that she had her own bathroom so she could quarantine in her off-campus house.

“I was so afraid to get sent to the quarantine dorms,” she said. “I heard someone got a pack of edamame as a meal.”

A freshman has a nomadic first month at UNC.

First-year Lucas Schroeder took the P2P to Craige North after being tested for COVID-19 at Campus Health. After two days in quarantine, he received his results – positive. That day, he moved to Parker Residence Hall, UNC’s on-campus isolation dorm.

“It was frustrating to repack all of my stuff and strip the bed and move again. It was a hassle and felt kind of pointless,” Lucas said. “I wasn’t even in contact with anyone in Craige.”

After his second move, Lucas’s strategy to pass time was to sleep the hours away. He woke up at 1 p.m. every day, did schoolwork, watched movies and went downstairs to pick up his food bag, labeled with his room number. He rarely saw anyone.

“I want to be at UNC, and it’s been a great time up until I got sick,” he said. “But I can’t say I’m too surprised that this is how it went. I think we all knew that when we signed up, so I’m not upset at UNC. I’m more upset that we’re still handling COVID as a society.”

After his isolation, Lucas plans to go home to Charlotte for a week and then move to Ocean Isle Beach with his friend. When he gets to his final destination, he will have moved five times in the first month of his freshman year.

Designated quarantine space becomes limited at UNC. 

To add to the confusion of the coronavirus procedures, and feelings of isolation, UNC sent sophomore Claire Perry to an off-campus hotel to quarantine.

When UNC informed Claire she’d be moving to a hotel, she was concerned – she said it seemed weird.

“I had been following the dashboard and knew that technically it said they had spots left in isolation and quarantine,” Claire said. “I was like, wow. Obviously, they’re sending me to a hotel because they don’t have spots left or they’re reserving a couple spots for some reason.”

After checking in at the hotel front desk, she was led to a conference room and given one day’s worth of food. She said there were a lot of people around who weren’t students. Her quarantine was among regular hotel patrons.

For three days, Claire binged Avatar: The Last Airbender, was not productive, and only left her room once to go to the ice machine. She packed her own food because she saw posts on the UNC Reddit page about the quarantine meals. One of her few interactions was with an employee at the hotel front desk – she called to tell him UNC forgot to deliver her meals that day. Claire said she felt isolated and lonely, but that she felt lucky for her outside resources and support.

Above all, she was scared of what would happen if she had the virus.

“I was trying to distract myself,” she said. “I didn’t want to think about it because I have asthma and knew that if the test was positive, I could have a really bad experience. While trying not to think about it, I tried not to think about anything.”

Claire updated a thread on Twitter about her quarantine experiences throughout her stay. She wanted to use her platform to advocate for herself, and other students.

“It was kind of an impulse,” she said. “It ended up getting a lot more reception than I thought it would, which was really overwhelming.”

After getting the call that her results were negative, Claire left her quarantine room and was faced with an unmasked man in the elevator. He told her she could get in. Claire said she’d wait for the next one.

When Claire reflected on her experience, she felt like most of UNC’s coronavirus efforts were geared toward damage control – and that shouldn’t have been the approach. She thinks things may have been different if UNC wasn’t one of the first universities to reopen.

“We were a leader in all the wrong ways,” she said.

Edited by Makenna Smith