UB reported 1,060 on-campus cases of COVID-19 this academic year.
That number could have been lower.
I would know. I was one of the positive cases.
Earlier this semester, I woke up with a 101.4 degree Fahrenheit fever. I immediately called Campus Living, which sent me to South Campus to quarantine. I took a swab test in my room two days later. Five days into my stay, I tested positive.
Confused and panicking, I texted my Governors Complex roommate and close friends to let them know I had tested positive for the virus, and they had been exposed.
I thought the worst had already happened.
Then, UB proved me wrong.
In the days following my diagnosis, the university offered my close contacts and me confusing, contradictory and, frankly, unsafe advice, some of which seemingly contradicted CDC guidelines. Not only was I sick and afraid for my friends’ health, I was terrified of being patient zero in the university’s next outbreak.
It didn’t have to be this way.
This could have been prevented.
It all started when my case manager — a Campus Living employee tasked with managing quarantined students — cleared me to leave isolation just seven days after I first developed symptoms and five days after I tested positive. The CDC recommends isolating for 10 days — down from 14 at the start of the semester — after developing symptoms or testing positive.
I only stayed because a physician’s assistant from UB Health Services and an official from the Erie County Department of Health told me that date was wrong. Without that advice, I would’ve returned to North Campus while still potentially contagious.
When I brought this discrepancy up with my case manager, she doubled down, incorrectly insisting that it was safe for me to leave just seven days after becoming symptomatic.
I received two separate emails telling me I was cleared to leave during my stay on South Campus: one from Campus Living, and one from the county health department three days later.
That, on its own, would have been bad enough.
But then Campus Living refused to quarantine two of my closest contacts.
Campus Living told my roommate that he didn’t need to quarantine. We had spent hours together in an enclosed space without masks. But, a Campus Living representative said,our beds were far enough apart to alleviate concern. (For the record, I measured. They’re about five feet apart.)
My roommate, entirely of his own volition, did his best to quarantine in our room, but he still had to leave to pick up food, get his weekly COVID-19 test, and use the communal bathroom we share with five other people. Quarantining him on South Campus would have been safer and less stressful.
Another one of my close contacts and I shared dinner just 36 hours before I came down with a fever. Campus Living told him he didn’t need to quarantine because he hadn’t seen me the day before I got sick. He then went to an a cappella rehearsal and a swim practice. People with COVID-19 are most contagious 24 to 48 hours before symptom onset, according to MIT.
An ECDOH official I spoke with in the final days of my isolation confirmed he should have been required to quarantine.
Three of my friends were unable to access testing in quarantine on South Campus despite prolonged exposure to me.
One friend’s case manager told her she couldn’t get a test unless she was symptomatic, even though she had eaten lunch and dinner with me the day before I got sick. She was too anxious and tired to argue, but the case manager said that asymptomatic cases of COVID-19 are rare. (They aren’t.)
Another friend spent two full days in quarantine on South Campus before her case manager contacted her. When her case manager finally reached out, it was eight days since our last close contact. The case manager offered her an optional test, but said the test would extend her quarantine. She declined but said she would have gotten tested if her quarantine period would have been the same.
A third close contact asked her case manager for a test. He told her tests weren’t provided to quarantined students.
The CDC recommends close contacts be tested immediately after identification and again five to seven days after their last contact or the development of symptoms.
I find it absurd that a university that administers thousands of COVID-19 tests every week would be either unwilling or unable to spare three tests for students with a high likelihood of infection.
These tests aren’t just used to satisfy close contacts’ curiosity. They allow close contacts who test positive to notify their own close contacts, preventing further infections.
Those are just the major issues.
Here are a few more:
- I got sick on a Saturday. The Daily Health Check directed me to call Campus Living, but Campus Living is closed on weekends. I spent an hour on the phone and almost gave up, convincing myself that my fever was just food poisoning or the flu.
- The van that was supposed to bring one of my close contacts to South Campus arrived four hours late.
- One of my friends left quarantine a day earlier than recommended by the state health department after being cleared by Health Services.
- Another close contact got two different release dates, one from Campus Living and another from Health Services.
I really hope what happened to my friends and me was an anomaly.
It’s unconscionable that UB would be giving such bad advice and that the messaging would be so inconsistent.
An ECDOH official I spoke to while in isolation said I was the “third or fourth” student she knew of who had been given an improper early release date. She added that those incorrect dates could have been responsible for part of the university’s caseload.
I can’t quite claim to be a COVID-saint, but I kept my end of the COVID-19 return-to-campus bargain. I wore at least one mask at all times, got tested when required and didn’t do anything risky.
Unfortunately, the university didn’t do all it could to keep me and my classmates safe. I was a potential danger to others, and the university let it happen.
Some COVID-19 cases were inevitable. But not all 1,060.
Maybe that number would have been lower had UB’s leadership incorporated more voices, like unions and student groups, in the decision-making process.
Maybe that number would have been lower had UB (or SUNY, for that matter) implemented baseline and mandatory weekly surveillance testing at the start of the fall semester.
Maybe that number would have been lower had UB expanded Health Services’ hours to include weekends and put it in charge of quarantined students instead of Campus Living. I’m sure the case managers were trying their best, but they ultimately have no public health experience.
A public health response needs to be led by public health experts.
My friends and I got lucky. As far as I know, I didn’t infect anyone. I still don’t know how it’s possible, but even my roommate tested negative.
Others may not have been as lucky. No on-campus UB community members died from COVID-19 this year, according to the university’s COVID-19 dashboard. But some of them may have passed the virus on to their roommates or friends. Some of them may have passed it on to vulnerable family members. Some of them may be struggling with long-term symptoms.
I’m not writing this to bash the university. UB is a great school, and I really do love it here.
But it’s that greatness that made my experience even more frustrating. UB could have — and was obligated to — put experts in charge, listen to the community, and put people first.
Hopefully, that will happen in the fall.
Grant Ashley is an assistant features editor and can be reached at email@example.com
Grant Ashley is the editor in chief of The Spectrum. He's also reported for WBFO, WIVB and The Buffalo News. He enjoys taking long bike rides, baking with his parents’ ingredients and recreating Bob Ross paintings in crayon. He can be found on the platform formerly known as Twitter at @Grantrashley.