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The Inn at Penn, one of the places where students quarantined after testing positive for COVID-19, on Jan. 7, 2022. Credit: Jesse Zhang

As the University's fall semester came to a close in December 2021, a record number of students tested positive for COVID-19. Hundreds were forced into isolation, where many reported confusing guidelines, minimal communication, and an overall frustrating process.

Nearly 200 students tested positive for COVID-19 between Dec. 12 and Dec. 18, the highest weekly count of the fall 2021 semester and a total of 414 students were actively isolating — either in on-campus isolation housing or at home.

At the time, isolation housing included Sansom Place West, New College House West, the Inn at Penn, Axis Apartments, and the old Alpha Delta Pi sorority house. The University has since expanded its portfolio of isolation properties to ensure students living in College Housing can move into isolation facilities in the event they test positive, Chief Wellness Officer Benoit Dubé told the Daily Pennsylvanian on Jan. 20.

The campus positivity rate has since fallen to 4.11% for the week of Jan. 16 to Jan. 22, although the University reports a record-high 1,314 students in isolation — either residing on campus in isolation housing or at home. The University has a modified isolation policy per CDC recommendations: five days fully isolating, then reintegrating into campus spaces for days six through 10, while staying overnight in their isolation buildings.

“It was a really difficult time for the entire contact tracing team because there were 1,200 new cases in one week, and I’m sure it was no fun for students,” Dubé said. “But it is a reflection of how many people turned positive.”

In December, some students were instructed to isolate in newer isolation housing — including the ADP house — but said the University sent them emails first meant for students in Sansom Place West, confusing them about check-in and room policies.

Wharton first-year Anoushka Ambavanekar initially isolated in her dorm but was told to move into the old Alpha Delta Pi sorority house. When she arrived, however, she said she found a deserted house with no lights, people, or Wi-Fi.

“The big issue for me was that there was so little communication. If I hadn’t constantly called or emailed many different people, no one would have been checking in, and they wouldn’t have known about the issues,” Ambavanekar said. “If I had been struggling a lot medically, I have absolutely no clue what I would’ve done. If I was in a medical emergency, there was absolutely nothing I could’ve done.”

Student Health Service Medical Director Vanessa Stoloff said all students in isolation should be contacted by Campus Health's COVID Navigator, an automated text-based program to better support students who test positive, have symptoms, or have come into contact with COVID-19. Stoloff said that the program does require students to opt-in, meaning that some may not receive text messages.

Although the University provided snack bags to isolating students, Sickness, Isolation, Quarantine meals require students order a day in advance on the Mobile Order app and did not initially deliver to the ADP house, forcing Ambavanekar to ask friends to drop food off for her.

College first-year Kayleigh Mooney, who also isolated at the ADP house, added that they did not have enough water or a trash disposal, and garbage ended up piling up in all areas of the house, never receiving direction on what to do.

Ambavanekar said her frustrations came with not knowing who to reach out to. She attempted to contact the COVID Resource Call Center, Housing Services, and other numbers she could find online related to Penn administration. Ultimately, she said someone from University housing called her to resolve food and Wi-Fi issues.

Wharton sophomore Heather Bernstein, who was also isolated at the ADP house, said that her friends who isolated in other locations like Sansom Place West had stricter safety guidelines and less space. Ambavanekar, Bernstein, and Mooney agreed that although their COVID-19 isolation caused additional stress for school, they found professors and academic policies to be accommodating.

Student complaints about isolation housing have been recurring since the spring 2021 and earlier in the fall 2022 semester. Chief, persistent problems include insufficient food, and the University's unclear communication.

As COVID-19 cases remain high on campus and across the nation, Dubé said students should make an action plan for the event that they test positive for COVID-19.

"The best way to experience this predictably unpleasant episode is to plan ahead for it," Dubé said. "People should make a preparedness plan for the event that this might happen, because statistically, it just might."