The residents in the University of Virginia’s Balz-Dobie dormitory got their first inkling that something was happening on Monday.
“People were starting to exhibit symptoms of COVID — and they were actually just a few doors down from us,” said Luke Lamberson, a first-year Balz-Dobie resident. “Late Tuesday, we heard that the first person was positive.”
By Wednesday afternoon, the positive cases reached five, and university officials ordered all 188 Balz-Dobie residents to quarantine in their rooms while health officials came to test each one.
Those tests found 10 additional students with the virus, brining the total to 15. Those students are in isolation rooms, and are doing well, the university tweeted Friday morning. Their roommates are all being quarantined and the Thomas Jefferson Health District is today conducting contact tracing to find others who have had close contact with them — close contact is generally considered spending at least 15 minutes within 6 feet of someone with the virus.
This was the first dormwide quarantine the university has imposed since the start of in-person classes nearly two weeks ago. The move coincides with a spike in new coronavirus cases among all university students.
UVA reported 52 new student cases on Thursday — the highest number it has seen in one day since officials started publicly tracking cases on Aug. 17. The university attributed the spike to a data lag.
That brings the total student cases to 382.
UVA's COVID Tracker website.
Credit: Courtesy of the University of Virginia
It’s unclear where all the sick university students are living. The university’s figures do not identify whether the students live on Grounds or off. (Around two-thirds of students live in the Charlottesville community, the university has estimated. Roughly 4,400 students live in the residence halls.)
The five Balz-Dobie students are the only instance of the university identifying a location for positive cases — though there are certainly other residence hall students who are sick.
“We don’t know the situation in any other dorms,” said Alyssa Underwood, another first-year Balz-Dobie resident. “The university doesn’t want to violate anyone’s privacy, which I totally understand, so they’re not really giving any information on what dorm is doing what. I do think it is possible that other dorms are having issues.”
The Balz-Dobie students were immediately vocal about their cases and exposure, which Underwood thinks may have contributed to the university’s decision to lock it down. Underwood and her roommate even demanded they be quarantined after learning they’d spent an evening with one of the students who was sick, she said.
They are currently in the Hampton Inn & Suites on West Main Street with other Balz-Dobie residents. She’s heard of other students being quarantined at the University Gardens apartments.
The university has also sent aside 1,500 rooms on Grounds for quarantine and isolation space.
A view of the Balz-Dobie residence hall floor where several students tested positive for COVID-19.
Credit: Courtesy of Luke Lamberson
The number of students filling that space is steadily climbing. On Wednesday, the university reported 11% of their quarantine space filled. By Thursday, it was up to 15%.
Tracking the spread of COVID positive students has become all-consuming work for the UVA team at the Thomas Jefferson Health District. The district will add five case investigators and two contact tracers to handle the university students, it announced Thursday. The added staff come as part of a memorandum of understanding between the health district and UVA.
The added work is not only due to the sheer number of students who attend the university. (Last year, there were roughly 25,000. The university has not yet released this year’s student population.)
University students, more so than other community members, tend to lead highly social lives. That means each positive case can lead to a lot of exposed people.
“With students, often, even if they keep their gatherings small, they could be with a different group every night,” Kate Baker, a COVID epidemiologist and lead case investigator at TJHD, who is handling UVA student cases.
“One infected person has the potential, because they have these wider social circles, to spread [the virus] quite a bit more,” she said. “And we do see that.”
It was that phenomenon, coupled with a rapid filling of quarantine space, that led officials at nearby James Madison University to send their students home after a week of in-person classes.
While this happens both on and off campus, residence halls pose their own unique challenges because of the communal living there. In the Balz-Dobie residence hall, for example, students are divided two to a room with a communal bathroom area that has multiple sinks, toilets and showers.
“Everyone is assigned a stall, a sink and a shower that we’re only allowed to use, as a COVID precaution, to minimize exposure to different people,” Lamberson said. “I think there are, like, four or five people who are assigned to each stall, sink, shower combination.”
Alyssa Underwood's dorm room in the Balz-Dobie residence hall at the University of Virginia.
Credit: Courtesy of Alyssa Underwood
Residence hall students are required to follow strict rules laid out by the university, Lamberson said. Unless they are in their dorm room, students must wear masks. Gatherings can be no larger than 15 people, and there can be no visitors from outside a particular dorm.
“So, before the quarantine, everyone was hanging out in the dorms — in groups under 15, with masks,” Lamberson said. “We’d play board games and stuff. We were trying to be safe, but still socialize and meet new people.”
Most of the students Lamberson observed have followed the rules carefully, he said. That’s why it surprised him that Balz-Dobie was the first residence hall “to fall.”
Not all students are as careful.
“There were people who were going out and partying,” Underwood said. “We’d see them leave, and my friends and I were expecting some email to be sent out saying, ‘Hey, maybe don’t. Don’t do that.’ But we didn’t really get any of that.
“It’s been interesting to see how students act,” she continued. “Because a combination of university policy and individual actions I think has contributed to how coronavirus is spreading on Grounds.”