The last day of move-in at the dorms for Utah State University on Sunday suddenly turned into the first day of quarantine for hundreds of students living there.
In four of the residence halls on campus, high levels of COVID-19 had been detected in the wastewater. And 287 of those who had just started unpacking their belongings were told to make their rooms feel like home, because they wouldn’t be leaving for awhile.
That meant they’d miss going to their classes, which started Monday. They’d need to get tested as soon as possible for the virus. And they won’t be allowed to socialize with anyone but their roommates until test results come back, allowing the Logan school to isolate those who are sick and identify people who came into close contact with them.
The wastewater testing is a new way for colleges to monitor for outbreaks of COVID-19, especially in the dorms. In Utah, it’s also being used at Brigham Young University in Provo and the University of Utah in Salt Lake City — which have both partnered with researchers at USU to conduct the studies. The sampling at the U. started late Monday.
“It’s taken us awhile to get there,” said U. spokesperson Chris Nelson. “But we view it as an important tool.”
Testing will be done twice daily there at 10 locations, though there were no initial results available. U. students were required to get swabbed before getting the keys to their rooms last week, and 16 students tested positive with that. The wastewater sampling, Nelson hopes, will help the U. continue to watch for spread of the virus.
At BYU, where classes also started Monday, spokesperson Carri Jenkins said sampling will begin soon.
For the first USU students sidelined by wastewater results, it was an unexpected start to an already unusual school year. Here’s how it unfolded there:
Sunday at 12:49 p.m.
Megan Gurney was midway through lunch with her cousin when her phone buzzed. She set down her sandwich to read the message:
“USU SAFETY ALERT: Wastewater from four resident halls detected SARS-CoV-2.”
Gurney clicked the link that followed and immediately lost her appetite. Her dorm, Jones Hall, was on the list.
Had she been in contact with someone who had COVID-19 when she got to the dorms? When could she start showing symptoms if she had? Were her roommates OK? Should she call her parents? Was she infecting people in the restaurant right now?
She left a nice tip for the waitress and headed back to the school to quarantine, as instructed.
Tyler McClellan never got a text.
He had been sitting with his new roommates in Davis Hall when they heard a knock at the door. It was an administrator with campus housing. McClellan, also a freshman, had moved in the day before, coming from Lehi. And he thought maybe it was someone there to welcome them to the dorms.
Instead, the official started: “You’re all going to be quarantined.”
The residents were instructed to get on a bus waiting outside to take them to a nearby testing center. He and his roommates grabbed their stuff and ran downstairs to get a seat.
They were taken to an Intermountain Healthcare clinic in Cache Valley, about 10 minutes away. After a quick cotton swab, they were sent back to the dorms to stay.
“It was all really sprung on us,” said Ryan Schmutz, one of McClellan’s five roommates. He hadn’t had a chance to process much of it until, he said, he walked back into his room after the test.
The four dorms impacted — Jones, Davis, Morgan and Rich halls — all house mostly freshmen. Schmutz, who’s 18 and starting his first semester at USU, said he never thought he wouldn’t be able to go to his first day of college classes or not get to meet his classmates.
“It’s tough for us,” he said. “The only emotion I’m feeling right now is confusion.”
He was told at the clinic that it could be up to four days until he got his results back. Neither he nor McClellan had been feeling sick. Their roommates seemed fine, too.
But with the wastewater testing, there’s no way of knowing which or how many of the four dorms had high levels of the virus. Schmutz worried about whether he’d come in contact with someone during move-in who has it.
He’d just finished decorating his room before the news. The aviation major had hung an airplane poster on one wall and attached a monitor on another so he could watch “The Office.”
Schmutz came to Utah State from Omaha, Neb. He had hoped to spend the first few weeks meeting people. “Unfortunately, now that’s been put on hold,” he said.
Gurney and her roommates were told to call the health department to register for testing. Gurney said she waited for an hour on hold and another two hours to get a spot on one of the buses.
When they finally got back, two of her four roommates decided to go back to their homes to quarantine. The student who Gurney expected to share a room with — one of her friends from her high school in Provo — was one of them.
Gurney has tried to fill her side of the half-empty room; she’s covered the walls with photos of her family and friends “just to remind me of them.” But it’s been quiet and hard to adjust to being alone.
The students can’t go out to get food. Their first meal was delivered by housing staff early Sunday evening: a sack dinner of sandwiches. (This time, Gurney was actually able to finish hers without interruption.)
Emilie Wheeler, spokesperson for Utah State, said that food delivery is done by the school’s COVID Care Team, which provides ”resources and support while [residents] quarantine or isolate.”
The school also has hired its own team of contact tracers. If or when a student tests positive, tracers will determine who may have been in close contact with the infected person. The positive student will be sent to separate isolation rooms in the dorms. Those who were in close contact will be asked to quarantine in their own rooms for the full 14-day incubation window.
Wheeler confirmed that test results could take a few days to come back, but she expects the school to start getting those soon, since all students were tested by Monday.
After dinner, Schmutz, McClellan and their roommates turned off Netflix and started a game tournament. It started with cards and video games, mostly Fortnite — which felt fitting for a potential 14 days in quarantine.
It ended with a highly competitive go at Monopoly that ended at midnight, with Schmutz the winner. It made him feel a bit better, but he still worried about how the first day of school would go.
Monday at 8:30 a.m.
McClellan was the first one up in his dorm suite to start classes.
The 20-year-old had been serving a religious mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Vietnam when the pandemic started. He was sent home early in March, as a precaution, after a year and a half. But he hadn’t shaken the habit of waking up early.
McClellan was able to log in for a live feed to his 8:30 a.m. section of statistics after he reached out to his professor and let him know about the dorm quarantine. He’ll be doing the same for the other four classes he’s taking that were also face-to-face.
One pandemic shift that’s been easy for him has been wearing masks. In Vietnam, he said, “everyone wears masks every day.” For the most part — and from the little of campus he’s actually seen — it appears that students and staff are following that mandate and also covering up. That makes him feel hopeful that he’ll be able to come out of his dorm room sometime soon and get back to somewhat normal.
For now, he’s hung a flag of Vietnam on one of his walls. It shows in the background of his Zoom class meetings.
Breakfast was dropped off for students. They had their choice of mini boxes of cereal and cinnamon rolls. McClellan grabbed a box of Frosted Flakes. After eating, Schmutz logged on for his classes, too, starting with landscape architecture.
After finishing up homework, Schmutz said, he wasn’t quite sure what to do. “I could see myself, probably by tomorrow, feeling a little done with this,” he said with a laugh.
So far, Gurney has tried to keep herself occupied with homework, too, so she doesn’t get bored. The nursing major had a Zoom call for her human development class in the afternoon, and did the readings ahead of time for her English course.
She also finished unpacking and took out the trash. When she walked outside for a brief minute with the bags, she saw more buses loading up to take students to get tested. It was a little surreal.
At USU, before the sewage tests, there had been 21 active cases. Previously, there had been two at the dorms, but those students have since recovered. “It’s obviously a bummer that we have to begin school in quarantine,” Gurney said. But she hopes that by the end of the week, she’ll have her test results. And maybe, she said, “we can get back to regular college life.”
She paused. “Well, as regular as it can be right now.”
Mostly, Gurney said, she wants to see more of the campus than just her dorm room.