Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.

The Bruno Brief: What does an endemic pandemic look like at the University?

A surge in positive COVID-19 tests has sent hundreds of Brown students into isolation in the first month of a semester that was designed to include almost entirely in-person instruction. With 361 positive tests last week, how does it feel for students to be in isolation while the rest of campus continues as usual? We talked with section editors Will Kubzansky and Gabriella Vulakh about their coverage of this story. 

Subscribe to the podcast on Spotify or Apple Podcasts or listen via the RSS feed. Send tips and feedback for the next episode to herald@browndailyherald.com. The Bruno Brief is produced in partnership with WBRU.

Livi Burdette

Welcome back to the Bruno Brief. I’m Livi Burdette. On this episode, a surge in positive COVID tests has sent hundreds of Brown students into isolation in the first month of a semester that was meant to include almost all in-person instruction. How does it feel for students to be in quarantine while the rest of campus continues as usual? We talked with section editors Will Kubzansky and Gabriella Vulakh about their coverage of this story. 

Will and Gabriella, thank you so much for being with us.

Gabriella Vulakh

Thank you for having us.

Will Kubzansky

Thanks so much for having us.

Livi Burdette

So, Gabby, just to get a picture of what the COVID situation looks like on campus right now, do you know how many students have tested positive for COVID and are currently isolating? And how does this compare to past numbers of positive tests throughout the pandemic?

Gabriella Vulakh

There has definitely been a sharp increase in cases this week from what we've been seeing previously on campus. Currently there are 361 students who have tested positive as of (last) Thursday, and 196 students are currently in isolation housing. The isolation housing is happening at the (Courtyard by Marriott Providence Downtown). I had previously been doing COVID-19 weekly updates for The Herald with Executive Vice President for Planning and Policy Russell Carey ’91 MA ’06, and we had reviewed the weekly numbers. And from that data, we definitely are seeing an increase.

Livi Burdette

And do you know what the largest number of positive tests in a week has been so far?

Will Kubzansky

So this week is definitely the biggest COVID spike that we've seen on campus, not just this school year but since the testing program started in fall 2020. The biggest week in 2020-21 sort of came in February 2021 when 60 kids or so tested positive. There's a similar surge at the beginning of the fall semester of 2021 when everyone got back. And then over winter break, there was actually a fairly large surge of both students and faculty and staff that reached about 200. But this week, 361 blows everything else out of the water.

Get The Herald delivered to your inbox daily.

Livi Burdette

So Will, who did you talk to for the story? And how have they been feeling?

Will Kubzansky

So we talked to eight students: Seven of them had tested positive at some point after returning to campus for the spring. One of them was talking about their experience in quarantine in a suite with their suitemate who had tested positive. This is Gabby Smith ’23.5, who is part of the class of 2023.5. She slept on the floor of the other double in her suite when her roommate tested positive, and she went to CVS to buy some tests in hopes of getting them reimbursed by the University's health insurance plan.

Gabby Smith

We had all been exposed, we think, as well. And then, you know, with continuing to live with her, we thought we could just get it from her at any moment. So we never really knew when we were positive or when we weren't. We wanted to keep going to class and not having to isolate, so we thought we would just test every day.

Will Kubzansky

By and large, everyone has felt fine. People are describing at the most maybe a fever, some fatigue, a cough that maybe gets a little bit worse at night. And at the least people are describing no symptoms at all. The three vaccination paradigm has really kept kids feeling healthy and able to keep up with their classwork virtually and basically living their life just in their dorms.

Livi Burdette

So this is a big surge in positive tests. Has it been difficult for some students to get tested once they know they've been exposed to COVID?

Will Kubzansky

Yeah, so some context here: This spring, Brown shifted to an antigen testing program from its PCR testing. So previously, if students wanted a PCR test, they could schedule an appointment, go to one of the testing centers, take a swab and they would get a result back anywhere from 24 to 72 hours later. This semester, students, if they want to get a test, go to one of the designated pickup locations, they pick up two tests, you can also get some KN95s. But you can't get any more than the two tests for a week unless you have a specific piece of communication from Health Services that says this person has been exposed and they need an extra test. This is Gabby Smith. 

Gabby Smith

I was just kind of like, I shouldn't be having to do this, like two-a-week should be fine for someone who wasn't exposed or someone who wasn't living with someone who had COVID. But I was kind of just a little annoyed at Brown that I had to be spending so much money on tests that they should be providing, even if I was getting reimbursed.

Livi Burdette

So Gabby, what are the isolating policies for students that have tested positive, and have they changed since earlier in the pandemic?

Gabby Vulakh

Yeah, so the isolating policies are definitely different from last semester. Now, students that are living in single occupancy rooms on campus are allowed to stay in their dorms when they learn that they have tested positive. This also includes students in suites that may have a single room within the suite and also students who are living in a double where both students have tested positive or the roommate has agreed to also live with the student who's tested positive in the same room. So there's definitely a lot of flexibility with that which is different from last semester when all students were sent to isolation housing at the Marriott Hotel. Students who are in a double right now and whose roommate is negative have the option of going to the Marriott for isolation. Overall, isolating policies are requiring students to keep masks on when they're going into these communal spaces, specifically wearing KN95 masks so that they're protecting the people in their dorm around them. But they are a bit different than last semester in that students are largely staying on campus as part of isolating.

Livi Burdette

So Will, have there been any issues with people in isolation not being able to pick up food?

Will Kubzansky

So the way the current system works is, if you are positive and you're living on campus, you go to 251 Bowen (St.) from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. every day, and you pick up dinner for that night as well as breakfast and lunch for the next day. Some people have complained and said that the quality of food they're getting is subpar, that you know, they're vegan or vegetarian, or they have other dietary restrictions, and they're being provided food, but they're not fans. So there's that. For one student who we talked to, Dani Poloner, he tested positive at night, and he uploaded his information to Brown Health Services indicating, I have a positive test and I need to be included in the isolation housing and food pickup system. He didn't hear back from Brown until about 12 p.m./1 p.m. the next day, and the food pickup time is 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. So if you test positive at night, and you don't hear back from Brown, and you don't pick up food because you're not leaving your dorm because you have COVID, there can be these situations where you don't get food for nearly a full day. 

Dani Poloner 

I had not had food since dinner the night before, and to be told at 12 p.m. that I would not be getting food from Brown until 4 p.m., at least — that was not ideal. They really are trying to help, but the system is just not functioning.

Livi Burdette

So based on your reporting, how are students feeling about this outbreak of COVID compared to, say, closer to the beginning of the testing program and the pandemic in general at Brown?

Will Kubzansky

Yeah, most of the students who I've talked to who have had COVID or have COVID right now aren't actively distressed about it. They're not angry with the University for making its policies a lot more reliant on students telling the truth that yes, I've taken my two tests this week, and the University trusting them to isolate in their dorm room, and life basically going on while a lot of people have COVID. You know, when we had one case of COVID in March 2020, we all got sent home, everything went haywire. And basically right now, it's kind of just like, if you have COVID, you can figure it out. We trust you, have some food, stay in your dorm and, like, it's chill, guys. This is what endemic looks like. And these are the upheavals that come with it. I should include a caveat here: For people who are immunosuppressed or for people who got an exemption from the vaccination requirement, that's not necessarily a guarantee. And the fact that there is this much COVID around on campus, for those people it means that they're suddenly facing significantly more risk than they were in the past. And when I talked to some students, they said, “Yeah, I feel okay about the way Brown has handled COVID this semester. If I were unvaccinated or immunocompromised, I'm not sure how I would feel.”

Livi Burdette

So Gabby, Will just said that with COVID now on campus, students experience on average five to 10 days of isolation and pretty mild illness. But one of the side effects of testing positive is that you can't go into in-person classes. Based on the students that you've talked to for the story, have they had trouble keeping up with their schoolwork and their classes while in isolation, and how have professors been about accommodating their absences from in-person classes?

Gabby Vulakh

Yeah, so obviously, while in isolation, students are expected to be keeping up with their course content and other assignments. And for the most part, from students that we've talked to, it seems that professors are definitely being accommodating to these students. There are Zoom lecture captures setup, there are ways to get class notes through Canvas or other online mediums or from other classmates. However, with that being said, we did speak with one student, Vivian Miller ’24.5, who is a sophomore at Brown. She is actually an economics major, and she was saying that a lot of her classes this semester are math classes, which build up on each other each class time, each class period. So missing a couple of classes in a row really starts to add up for her.

Vivian Miller

I've had some pretty bad experiences, asking professors to set up a Zoom or like set up a lecture capture. They often say, like, “Well, I didn't set this course up as a hybrid course, so, like, I'm not doing that, get notes from somebody in class.” Not having a good way to catch up is a little nerve-wracking.

Livi Burdette

Another aspect of managing this larger wave of positive cases is how students living in dorms are isolating within on-campus housing. And RPLs, the residental peer leaders who live in the dorms, have been expected to support the students living on their floors when they have to go into isolation. Have you spoken to any RPLs about this? And how do they feel about this upswing in cases? 

Gabby Vulakh

Yeah, so I spoke with Vivian Miller, who is an RPL in Marcy House. And she said that RPLs were all required to participate in multiple COVID-19-related trainings to be able to best support the residents in their building. She told me that they were basically told that there could be students who have tested positive in the building and are using the facilities, but the University is not actually allowed to tell them whether those people are in their building at a given moment or who they are. So potentially, they could be isolating in their singles or in their suite and using the bathroom or other common room spaces in the dorm, but the RPL won't know about that unless the student decides to share that with their RPL. She's trying to be a community leader the best that she can. She was saying that she always tries to have a mask on her in the hallways and put it on when she sees people so that she's acting as a good example for students in her building. And in fact, Miller is actually in a single in her building, in Marcy, but because she feels that as an RPL students that are constantly knocking on her door or trying to get guidance or support from her in the hallway, that it was best for her to request to be placed in the Marriott so that students were not approaching her while she was testing positive. 

Livi Burdette 

So Will, you were in contact with Dr. Vanessa Britto MSc ’96, who's the executive director of health and wellness, for this story. What does it look like for the University to actually implement their new, more relaxed COVID policies, now that there are so many cases on campus?

Will Kubzansky 

Dr. Britto reached out to us over email, so everything that I'm saying came to us in a written format. We didn't actually get the chance to talk to her. So I think there's a chasm between broad policies and then just all these small details that need to be ironed out. For a lot of students, right — we talked about this earlier — who needed more tests but couldn't go pick them up at Alumnae Hall, Vanessa Britto has said if you reach out to Health Services, they can schedule a test with you, a PCR test, or we can problem solve, is the phrasing that she used. Or, you know, little specifics that maybe you don't include in a broad COVID policy, but things that students are concerned about. If you don't like the food that Brown Dining Services is giving you, can you go do takeout? And the answer is you can order DoorDash and you can order UberEats, but you can't actually walk into a restaurant and pick up the food. So there's little details like that, that they need to communicate to students, that some students are saying that they're confused about. The other aspect of it, I guess, is what it looks like to be in isolation and to inform the University that you've tested positive for COVID. So it takes a varying amount of time for the University to get in touch with the student after they submit the form that indicates that they've just returned a positive COVID test. It depends on for instance, how many students have tested positive in that window. That's something that she specifically cited, and sometimes it can take longer than usual, which is what happened to Dani Poloner, who we were talking about. Another piece of it is the tests: Students are trying to figure out if they're still positive while they're in isolation, the University is only giving out two tests once you test positive to be used on day five and either day six or day seven. So just all these small details that, again, you really wouldn't even conceive of when you're trying to come up with okay, how do we limit COVID on the campus while keeping our regulations in sync with the level of risk that the majority of the student body faces but things that you need to figure out for the system to function. 

Livi Burdette

Will and Gabriella, it was great having you on. Thanks for being here.

Gabby Vulakh

Thank you for having us.

Will Kubzansky

Thanks so much, Livi. 

Livi Burdette

This has been The Bruno Brief. Our show is produced by Jacob Smollen, Cory Gelb-Bicknell, Katy Pickens, Da-Young Kim, Finn Kirkpatrick, Ellery Campbell, Lella Wirthe and me, Livi Burdette. If you like what you hear, subscribe to The Bruno Brief wherever you get your podcasts and leave a review. Thank you for listening. We'll see you next week.

Music:

Denzel Sprak by Blue Dot Sessions https://www.sessions.blue 

Hakodate Line by Blue Dot Sessions https://www.sessions.blue 

Our Only Lark by Blue Dot Sessions https://www.sessions.blue 




Popular



Powered by SNworks Solutions by The State News
All Content © 2022 The Brown Daily Herald, Inc.