COVID, or as I like to call it: the bug. Most of us have had that flea bite us in the ass at some point — and I can tell you, mine itched for a while. At this point, getting bitten by the bug has become a part of life. It entered my lungs during the first breaths of this fall semester. The positive results on my COVID test didn’t show up right away. It took a while for the infamous blue line to surface. After days of feeling like ants were cutting traffic in my throat, I finally had an explanation as to why that was. I had to do the typical things that come after those two lines. Most guidelines seemed — kind of — clear, but there was one that definitely wasn’t: rooming.
The first person who found out about my test results was my roommate. We now had to welcome the bug to fly around in the air of our room for a couple of days. What were we going to do? My nostrils were a viral chimney, so sharing a room was probably not a good idea. The question that naturally followed was: is there a college policy for what to do if your roommate gets COVID? Yes! What is it? It’s called: “Hope you don’t get it too!”
The first thing you hear when you get COVID is isolate, isolate, isolate. Okay, sure, but where? In your room. But “my room” is also someone else’s. On one of my first nights of feeling the wrath of the bug — and prior to confirming my diagnosis — I called the nurse on call and described what was going on. The person on the other side of the line could smell my COVID from wherever they were, and they strongly emphasized that my roommate shouldn’t be in the room. The Fall 2022 Isolation Guideline on the College’s Student Testing and Protocol website states that “Swarthmore students living on campus must isolate in their assigned dorm rooms … If you share a room with another student, you should wear a mask at all times with the exception of eating, sleeping, and bathing. You should maintain a six foot distance from the other when sleeping. Besides roommates, no other [people] … are allowed in your dorm room unless there is an emergency.” Being exposed for more than eight hours a night — if you are lucky enough to sleep that long — to the virusy snores of one’s roommate sounds like the perfect recipe for getting infected, even if both parties are wearing a mask. This mixed messaging and the risks of the situation leave us bewildered.
During the 2020-2021 pandemic era, Mary Lyon (ML) and the Inn were the places where one isolated if they tested positive. The academic year after that, ML was used as a residential dorm again — much to the chagrin of many — and the Inn partially resumed its Inn functions. The latter still accommodated students who were sick. This all changed when there was an outbreak at the end of the previous semester, which absolutely sucked, as the masking mandate even had to be temporarily exhumed from its grave. From that fiasco, a new isolation policy was born: isolate in place. This is pretty much the same policy we see today from the college.
Isolation is not only physical. It is also psychological. While I was confined to the four walls of my room, I felt like the outside world had frozen, but I also knew that time and life kept marching forward, a fact that was very difficult to assimilate in my head. The purpose of this week’s rant is not to push isolating people further, but to advocate the need for safer options. Options are essential to ensuring the safety of the roommates of people with COVID. During the previous semester, there were 336 student positive tests as reported by the college. This semester, there have been 48 cases thus far as of the time this article was written. Given that this averages to about twelve cases per week, and while not all of them occur to people who have roommates, the college should be able to provide a safe environment for those who do. After all, the College’s endowment distribution is $113.5 million. Why not put it to good use? One of the ways this could be done is to offer isolation housing again for those infected. Another option is to accommodate the roommates by moving them temporarily to another room until either the infected person tests negative or ten days have passed. At the very least, the college should guarantee a bed to the roommates of people infected. We can’t expect students to hop around like grasshoppers from room to room, or room to lounge. Additionally, there needs to be clearer guidance on how to room after day five, aka when we are freed from quarantine. We might still be infectious at that point, so there should be clearer steps on what to do to preserve everyone’s health.
Uncertainty should not be a policy. It will always come back to bite us in the end.