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Life Inside UNC's 'COVID-19 Dorm'

Courtesy Emily Mecia
The Charlotte Ledger
UNC's Parker residence hall is one of two dorms the university set aside for students with COVID-19.

For college students and their parents, the last few weeks have been a frustrating and bewildering time. Universities welcomed students and tried to impose sensible restrictions to stop the spread of COVID-19. But many were quickly overwhelmed with new cases, and in the last two weeks, some of North Carolina’s largest colleges have hastily moved all classes online and shut their dorms.

This is the story of one college student who has a more extraordinary tale than most. He graduated from a Charlotte high school in June and looked forward to starting college at UNC-Chapel Hill. He found a roommate from another Charlotte high school, and they linked up with six other incoming freshmen to share a four-bedroom suite in a residence hall on UNC’s South Campus.

But on Aug. 17, in just the second week of classes, UNC announced it was shifting all classes online and shutting its dorms as COVID-19 cases multiplied. While many of his fellow students left town and headed home, though, he stayed: He had tested positive for COVID-19 and was ordered into isolation — first at a local hotel, then later in one of two UNC dorms designated for students with COVID-19.

The Ledger’s Tony Mecia spoke with him this week by phone about his journey from eager freshman to quarantined patient and how his roller-coaster last month has stacked up against his expectations. Because of the stigma surrounding COVID-19, and to be able to speak more freely about his experience, the student requested that The Ledger not identify him, and we agreed.

Here is the story in his words, edited for brevity and clarity:

Before I left Charlotte, I didn’t have any huge expectations. I was just so relieved that we were able to go on campus. I just wanted to go to college. I was ready to start something new.

When I moved in, my roommate couldn’t move in at the same time. They limited the number of people who could move in at once. It was kind of strange, because I was moving in and it was just my parents and me.

After I got moved in and my parents left, it was a big adjustment. I was excited but also nervous. It took me a week or two to adjust. I never was really homesick, but I definitely learned to appreciate a lot of the things my parents had done for me. It was a lot of changes at once.

Mask Rules 

Everyone was wearing a mask. On South Campus, people would get dirty looks if they were not wearing a mask, and the RAs (resident advisers) would come out of their rooms and tell people to put on a mask if they were not wearing one. So that precedent was set from the beginning. Overall, people were pretty safe. People were trying, for the most part, to do the right thing.

There were fraternity parties. They happened at off-campus houses. It was like no one was wearing a mask. People were packed into a house. That was unsafe.

RAs made the rule that you had to wear a mask in the hallway of your own suite, so even around the people you’re sharing a bathroom with. They put in some super-strict rules. I don’t think anyone wore a mask to go to the bathroom, though.

It was kind of hard to find stuff to do because they didn't have a lot of events for freshmen to meet each other. We ended up going to the Battle House almost every day. It’s a Christian study center. They had a big tent set up outside that we just hung out at with good social distancing and people with masks and everything.

And upperclassmen that I knew or that other people knew would come and hang out with us or pick us up. We’d go up to the roof of a parking deck across from our building and hang out. People would bring skateboards or Frisbees. We met a lot of freshmen there.

It was definitely weird. You’d wake up in the morning and have no plans. Classes hadn’t started. There were no events. We had to find ways to meet other people. It made the transition a little harder because it wasn’t like we were busy the whole time. It was like, “Let’s take a walk to Franklin Street and get some ice cream.” Usually they have a week of welcome and FallFest, but we didn’t have that.

It Started With A Headache

Last Tuesday, as it was becoming apparent that they were closing the dorms and you had to move out, we started to look for other options off-campus. The next day, I was feeling like I had a headache. I just wasn’t feeling well. My stomach hurt. I just assumed it was because of stress and not eating well and not sleeping well.

And then the next day, I woke up and I was not feeling well at all. I had chills and a stuffy nose. I stayed in my bed all day. That afternoon, I had a 102-degree fever, so I went to campus health. I got tested, and they were like, “Since you had a test, we have to put you in quarantine.” My mom was freaking out a little bit. At first, you hear you’re going to live in a quarantine dorm and there are people walking around in hazmat suits to clean it, so you freak out a little bit.


Credit Courtesy The Charlotte Ledger
After a spike in COVID-19 cases at UNC, cleaners were spotted around campus wearing protective gear, like this worker in Morrison residence hall

But they put me in the Courtyard by Marriott hotel. It’s a nice hotel. It had a clean bed, a nice bathroom, a big flat-screen TV. It was great compared to my dorm. I watched a lot of TV. I watched all of “Outer Banks.” A friend dropped off some groceries. Someone else dropped me off Chipotle.

A couple days later, they called me and said, “You tested positive and by 12:30 this afternoon, we would like you to be in Parker residence hall. Call this number, and we'll send a van to come pick you up to move you there.”

I thought about whether I should go home, but once I got my test back, they gave me two hours to move into the isolation dorm. It happened too quickly for me to leave.

I had brought enough clothes to the hotel to get me through 10 days. I couldn’t go back to my dorm to pick anything else up. I had to go straight to Parker, a dorm next to the football stadium, which was set aside for students who tested positive.

They showed up in a big minivan. They took out the middle row, and they put a huge plastic shield between the front two seats and the back. The door opens automatically, so you don’t have to touch anything. And they ride with the windows down.

Since I was at the hotel, they knew I didn’t have sheets or a blanket. They gave me a set of sheets and this terrible blanket and a terrible pillow and a towel. And I’ve been sleeping on a rock-hard mattress all week. Everyone has their own room.

As it turned out, five of the guys in my suite tested positive. The two others had moved out before. I have no idea how I got it. In the days before I started showing symptoms, I hadn’t gone to any fraternity parties or big events.

Life In The COVID-19 Dorm

Here, there are no RAs, no adults in the building. We can hang out. People can be loud at night. We’ve just been hanging out in each other’s suites. It’s just the kids who tested positive.

When I got here, it wasn’t that full. It was about half capacity. Now, they’re almost full. It’s pretty packed. My roommate is in the room next to mine. We’ve just been hanging out and meeting the people that are also positive in the dorm.

Technically, we’re not really in full isolation because everyone else here is positive. You can be around this dorm and not feel like you’re threatening others.

Nothing is stopping us from leaving the building, but we’re not allowed to. I could walk out of the building right now and go walking around campus, and no one would ever know. But that’s not the safe, responsible thing to do, because then I could infect other people.

Dorm Food

In the isolation dorm, like at the hotel, they give you one bag of food per day. It has a thing of yogurt, a sandwich that tastes like rubber, a bunch of snacks and one meal — kind of like an airplane meal with chicken and rice or potatoes or something. And then they give you a lot of prepackaged, processed snacks, like trail mix and Grandma's cookies. And a thing of packaged orange juice and a thing of tuna. Everyone complains about the food.

A lot of people order their dinner to be delivered by Postmates. I order out one meal per day, probably — Chipotle, Panera, some of the local restaurants. I have a couple of friends who can’t taste anything. They’re the ones who eat the most food out of the food they give us, because they can’t taste it.


Credit Courtesy The Charlotte Ledger
UNC supplies daily rations to students who are quarantining or in isolation because of COVID-19. This photo is from the freshman student from Charlotte we spoke with, taken while he was quarantining at a Courtyard by Marriott.

I wish the food was better. I wish that I had brought my bedding. I’m also missing exercising, and there’s not a TV in here. So I have to do everything on my laptop. It would be nice to go and study around campus, too.

I’ve actually had decent community here — more than I would if I were isolated somewhere where I couldn’t talk to anyone. Earlier this week, they emailed us and said we each might be getting a roommate. So it follows the safety guidelines of the county for two COVID-positive people to be roommates.

I had my birthday while I was here in quarantine. I just kind of hung out. A couple people dropped off small Harris Teeter cakes. It was a pretty low-key birthday.

I’ve met a lot of people. I’m definitely glad I’ve gotten these experiences and got plugged into campus a little bit. I’ve also gotten ahead on my schoolwork. It just feels like a normal college dorm, except no one can leave. People will crack jokes about the food and complain a little bit. Everyone here is bonded by the fact that we all have COVID-19. So there’s kind of a little bit of a camaraderie that’s been fun.

I definitely wouldn’t take it back and personally for me, it was not fun being sick for two days, but I’m healthy now. Hopefully, it won’t have long-term effects.

Having COVID-19, it’s not a stigma for people in Chapel Hill because it’s just gone rampant through Chapel Hill. But when I tell people from home, they assume you were going to the huge fraternity parties or you were doing something unsafe or you were being a stupid college student and not wearing a mask. It’s kind of frustrating because I don’t know how I got it. I was being comparatively safe. I was wearing my mask. I wasn’t going to the huge parties.

I’m glad I did the responsible thing when I had those symptoms. I know people that just ignore their symptoms and don’t get tested. That’s probably what has led to the spread of the virus from campus, because some people don’t want to quarantine. They don’t want to be stuck in a residence hall for 10 days.

People should know that everyone who came on campus knew the risk of getting the virus. They didn’t expect it to happen this quickly. The university definitely messed up, but a lot of it is students being irresponsible. But what do you expect from college students?

It is what it is. I don’t think the university should be fully blamed. I don’t think the students should be fully blamed. I think it’s a mix. It’s hard to make decisions during a pandemic. Nobody knows how their choices are going to affect others and what that’s going to look like.

The student is scheduled to remain in isolation through Saturday. After leaving UNC’s COVID-19 dorm, he plans to move into an off-campus apartment this weekend with several of his suitemates.



This post first appeared in the Charlotte Ledger Business Newsletter. It is reprinted with permission.