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My Penn State Isolation Experience: Off-Campus Edition

During my first week back in Happy Valley, I settled into my apartment, met my new classmates and professors via Zoom…and tested positive for the coronavirus.

Although I knew coming back to State College posed this risk, I was not prepared for the anxiety and uncertainty I felt when I opened the email and saw my positive results in big, bold letters.

Immediately after receiving the news, I was in full panic mode — I had no idea what to do. Should I call my parents? My doctor? President Barron himself? I was lost.

I assumed that positive results would be quickly followed by a phone call from University Health Services or at least some sort of guidance. But the only instruction I received was from Vault Health, which basically just suggested I self-isolate and directed me to the CDC’s website if I had further questions.

In typical worried-mother fashion, my mom took matters into her own hands and called UHS on my behalf to get the scoop on how to move forward. I decided to self-isolate in my off-campus apartment rather than checking into Eastview, so my mom wanted to make sure Penn State didn’t completely forget about me (spoiler alert: they did). UHS assured her that someone would call me daily to check in and conduct contact tracing soon.

Days went by and I heard nothing. No one called to ask where I had been or who I had come into contact with prior to testing positive. No one called to make sure I was feeling OK. If I were an absolute asshole, I could’ve just been walking the streets of State College acting as if everything was normal, popping into Canyon for a slice of pizza, infecting thousands of people, and effectively ruining the semester for everyone.

Thankfully, my mom didn’t raise a piece of shit. I stayed isolated and informed anyone I had previously been in contact with of my positive results, but I’m sure there are plenty of people who wouldn’t have done the same.

Around halfway through my self-isolation, I developed a few mild symptoms. I was nervous, so I called UHS to see if I should be concerned. Apparently, UHS is closed on the weekends, but it has “help nurses” that you can talk to (but I still don’t really know what a “help nurse” actually is).

After being placed on hold and bopping to jazz music for a few minutes, I was connected to someone who asked if I had any life-threatening symptoms. Once they decided that I still had some time to live, they told me that someone would call me back in 45 minutes. So I cried a little and Googled my symptoms until arriving at the conclusion that death was upon me watched a few episodes of New Girl.

More than an hour later, I got a call back. They asked about my symptoms, told me that I would be fine, and promptly hung up. Still, no one conducted any sort of contact tracing, despite the fact that I had now called twice and was definitely on their radar at this point.

It wasn’t until six days after testing positive that someone from the university finally called me for contact tracing. They asked who I had been in close contact with during the 48 hours leading up to my test (which was now over a week ago), and I told them I had seen only my roommate. They asked for her name and contact information, but it’s now been more than a week since then and she was never contacted.

What’s the point of contact tracing if they’re not actually going to contact the people they trace? My roommate got tested and quarantined on her own, but if I was some sort of sociopath who never informed her of my results, she could have been unknowingly infecting people all across town.

Something else that kind of pissed me off was that they told me I should wear a mask around my pets if I had any. So no one calls me for six days but when they do finally call they’re worried about my imaginary pets. Cool.

If Penn State wants to keep this whole situation under control, effective contact tracing should be a top priority. With a student body as big as ours, the virus can spread fast, so failing to contact students who have been exposed is a major L on the University’s part.

When all is said and done, isolation is not a fun experience, but it’s not supposed to be. If you end up like me, stay home (or in Eastview), take care of yourself, try not to stress too much, and don’t expect Penn State to contact trace for you. Just inform your close contacts of your positive results ASAP.

Godspeed, and stay safe out there, my friends.

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About the Author

Grace Cunningham

Grace was Onward State’s social media manager once upon a time. She was also the host of Onward State's podcast. You should google "Podward State Wienermobile" for a good laugh. Nowadays, Grace is a copywriter or something. You can reach her at [email protected], although she doesn't know why you would want to.

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