CORONAVIRUS

Inside University of Iowa campus isolation: First the COVID glares, then depression

'I cried a lot while I was in isolation,' UI student says

Lainey Johnson (left) and Zoe Dunham, both first-year students at the University of Iowa, are photographed Wednesday in
Lainey Johnson (left) and Zoe Dunham, both first-year students at the University of Iowa, are photographed Wednesday in front of Burge Residence Hall in Iowa City. The two, who are dorm roommates, both tested positive for COVID-19 in September and were quarantined in isolation rooms in the Currier and Catlett residence halls. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — Without big plans for Labor Day, University of Iowa freshman Lainey Johnson strolled downtown from her Burge dorm room midmorning Sept. 7 and ordered an iced coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts.

She got caramel, a flavor she hadn’t tried before. But “it tasted off,” she said. When she got back to her room, something else was amiss.

“When you walk into your room or into your house, it smells familiar — it smells like home,” she said. “And I couldn’t smell anything. And that’s when I thought, ‘OK. Weird. Noted.’”

So Johnson fixed herself another coffee to taste it. And … nothing.

“That is when I panicked,” she said. “A light bulb went off.”

Johnson, 18, had been exposed to COVID-19 a week before while hanging out with a friend who three days later developed symptoms and tested positive. Rushing to get tested herself that Labor Day, Johnson learned within hours she, too, was positive.

The freshman from southern California made the dreaded “COVID walk” the next day to nearby Currier Residence Hall, heaving a cart with her comforter and other belongings into an isolation room — like hundreds across Iowa’s public universities also have done since the hybrid fall semester began in August.

“If you’re going anywhere with a cart, everybody looks at you because they know that you have COVID,” Johnson’s roommate, Zoe Dunham, 18, said. “It’s terrible. You get COVID glares.”

Dunham, a UI freshman from West Des Moines, said because she had no symptoms, she had to fight to get a test on campus that day. Her results came back negative, so both she and her boyfriend scheduled tests for later in the week through Test Iowa.

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And both those came back positive, forcing the pair to relocate to coronavirus-reserved housing in Catlett Residence Hall — where they did their 10-day isolation stint together.

“The only rule was that we had to be in a dorm that had pod-style bathrooms,” Dunham said about the UI allowance that she and her boyfriend could wait out the virus in the same residence hall space.

It helped, she said, “a little bit.”

“But it was a very negative experience,” Dunham said, recounting the despair she felt while trapped inside on what turned out to be a beautiful fall week on campus.

“I didn’t have any motivation to do any of my homework. I cried a lot while I was in isolation. I was really depressed,” she said.

‘Heartbreaking’

Preparing for a pandemic-plagued semester, Iowa’s public universities carved out residence hall space for students with COVID-19 who needed to isolate or those with close contacts who needed to quarantine.

UI Housing and Dining made about 300 rooms available for such purposes, and 273 total have moved into the reserved space so far this semester — 226 to isolate and 47 to quarantine.

Most students isolate alone, although UI officials told The Gazette that “during the intake process we inquire about roommates and work to honor requests.” Of the 273 students who’ve quarantined or isolated in UI dorms this term, 40 shared a room “due to personal request.”

Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa don’t allow students to quarantine or isolate in the same dorm rooms.

“Students do not share rooms in isolation and quarantine per public health guidelines,” ISU spokeswoman Angie Hunt told The Gazette.

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ISU doesn’t break down quarantine and isolation totals by those who did so specifically in the residence halls — but it reports 2,025 students, faculty and staff have quarantined since Aug. 17, and 1,749 have isolated during that period.

Although UNI also hasn’t tallied students who’ve quarantined or isolated in its halls this term, at its peak in late August UNI had 83 in dormitory quarantine and 28 in isolation.

The mandated quarantine and isolation stints have compounded this fall’s already-abnormal collegiate experiences.

Students will see no sanctioned tailgating, no football stadium student sections and no orientation gatherings. Bars were shuttered but since reopened under restrictions. Parties have been muted. In-person classes are less common.

Even meeting new people — a freshman imperative — has been challenging.

“We always had to walk around in masks, and it was hard to recognize people — to see someone’s face,” said Johnson, who with Dunham agreed to share with The Gazette their experiences in campus isolation and collegiate purgatory this fall — stuck between feelings of bitterness for lost rites of passage and understanding of global realities.

“At first I was like, ‘Oh man, graduation, freshman year, all these things that we’ve been looking forward to since we were a little kids,” Johnson said. “But then as time went on, I realized this isn’t just me or my friends or my high school. … I feel like I’m going to look back at it and just kind of accept that that’s our reality.”

During the period Dunham and Johnson had to isolate in September, their friends were going through sorority rush — which was amended but still produced pictures of outdoor escapades and masked group hugs.

Dunham recalls sneaking to the common area in Catlett Residence Hall — her isolation home — where she could see the Iowa River from panoramic windows.

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“We’re not supposed to go in the common area space, and I got yelled at … because I like to look out the window,” she said. “But it was just so heartbreaking to not be able to go outside.”

‘Mentally straining’

Both freshmen experienced some sickness when isolated with COVID-19 — beyond Johnson getting the signature loss of taste and smell. She suffered bad congestion and fatigue also.

Dunham had a runny nose, threw up a few times and felt like she had a fever — but forgot her thermometer in her room and couldn’t check.

“It was more mentally straining for me than it was physically,” she said.

Though one UI student who became sick and needed to isolate before classes started had told on social media about a horrendous encounter with her on-campus isolation space, Dunham and Johnson said they felt the rooms had what they needed: sheets, pillows, towels, fridge, freezer and microwave.

“They provided us with a blanket, which is really comfy actually — it was really nice,” she said. “I slept with it every night.”

They could order food online and have it delivered outside their doors. Johnson said she couldn’t taste for eight or nine days and so ate a lot of ramen noodles.

The UI provided mental health and counseling resources, although neither student received any direct outreach from the UI administration.

“The people that cared the most about my situation were my professors, by a long shot,” Johnson said.

“My professors were always emailing me,” Dunham said. “They were always totally really cool about everything, and they were always just like, ‘Yeah, totally fine, take as much time as you need, this sucks, I’m so sorry you’re going through this.’”

‘Happy to be outside’

When their mandated isolation expired, it felt like a dream, they said. The sun was shining.

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“When I got out I was walking down that ramp with my big cart, which was terrible, and everyone was like, ‘Oh my gosh she has COVID,’ and I was like, ‘I don’t have COVID anymore, actually,’” Dunham said. “I’m pretty sure I stood outside for a minute before I even went into the office to get my key because I was just like, ‘I’m so happy to be outside right now.’”

Johnson, who recalls the first dining hall pretzel bites she could taste again, said she walked around the campus, taking in the fresh air and pondering the new reality and what responsibilities students have.

“It’s really unrealistic to expect 18- and 19-year-olds to stay in their rooms every single day of the week,” Johnson said. “But also, if you’re going to go out and be with people, you should wear a mask.”

Dunham said she’s been impressed with the student behavior she’s witnessed — and the evolution of thought.

“It’s no longer, ‘I’m feeling bad for my situation,’” she said. “It’s more, ‘how are we going to get out of it? And how can we do what we need to do? How can we do our part to make sure that this isn’t going to go on for longer?’”

Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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