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Opinion: Life in Willamette’s Covid Isolation Dorm

Skeet Starr

Sports Editor

Lifestyles Editor Monte Remer in his quarantine room in Terra house. Photo by Skeet Starr

According to Assistant Dean for Community Care and Inclusion, Justin Leibowitz, since the start of the spring semester, Willamette’s Terra House has given refuge to 80 covid-positive students (around 5% of the undergraduate population). Through the winter months the virus steadily crept through the community at a manageable rate. “Case numbers on Willamette's campus have typically followed a similar pattern observable within the state,” he stated through email. “We saw an increase in cases for around 2 weeks, though our most recent days' data represent a slowing in the rate of cases.” In our post-lockdown university, Terra House stands as one of the last vestiges of the old pandemic, and one of the last true measures of case numbers.

Stepping into Terra House to begin an isolation period feels like stepping back in time, to the pre-vaccine days. Isolation, Netflix, strange dances around invisible six-foot barriers. The dorms themselves are equipped with some light blankets, a set of towels, and sometimes a pillowcase. Contrary to common belief, Terra has hot water, but it takes several minutes to heat up. Food is standard Goudy (plus some miscellaneous snacks) which arrives twice a day unannounced from noon- 2 pm for lunch, and 5-6:30 for dinner. Sarah Jenner, a student isolated in Terra, (‘25)remarked: “I think it’s the same Goudy guy who comes here every time, so shout out to him. He’s brave.” Snack supplies seem to rotate often, but instant oatmeal, potato chips and apples are mainstays, and often constitute breakfast. General upkeep duties are carried out by an external cleaning staff, who should be avoided for obvious reasons. Rumors and reports of cloudiness in the drinking water have circled Terra House, but remain unrefuted and unsubstantiated by Leibowitz, or Don Thompson, the Associate Dean for Health and Wellbeing and Director of Bishop Wellness Center. For any concerned students, the fridge of Terra House should contain a supply of Box Water.

Lifestyles Editor Monte Remer in his quarantine room in Terra house. Photo by Skeet Starr

The primary concerns of a Terra resident are likely health and school (and unfortunately not necessarily in that order). Covid positive students should not expect to be checked on regularly or at all while staying in Terra, and should carefully self monitor symptoms. According to the CDC, covid patients experiencing: “trouble breathing, persistent pain or pressure in the chest, new confusion, inability to wake or stay awake, pale, gray, or blue-colored skin, lips, or nail beds, depending on skin tone,” should seek immediate medical attention. The official Terra House isolation guide directs students toward campus safety in the event of an emergency. Furthermore, the guide states that the lobby of Terra has a supply of over the counter medications, such as Ibuprofen. Outside of physical health concerns, some may be worried about the effect of five days isolation on their mental state. Depending on who shares the hall at any given time, residents ought to expect to be alone for at least 90% of the day, and will be advised to only leave the dorm for emergencies. Alternatively, if cases are surging, Terra organizers may assign roommates. “I didn’t know Sarah was going to be my roommate until she showed up,” said Emily Taylor ('26), a recent Terra internee. Taylor’s comments speak to an air of confusion which seems to hover around the Terra experience. Residents would likely benefit from a mid-stay check in phone call or email from a university health rep. In preparation for the isolation transition, Liebowitz does well to make sure that soon-to-be residents understand they are supported by the university through various programs. However, radio silence throughout the isolation period could lead to issues going unresolved. Considering the lack of familiarity many have with Willamette’s health programs, residents might not feel comfortable calling Bishop or Terra organizers with concerns they perceive to be minor. A resident with a poor understanding of their symptoms, experiencing confusion for example, might never utilize Bishop. A check-in could offer the university the opportunity to discuss symptoms with the resident, and direct them to help. The strain of a new environment (especially an empty white-walled dorm room) can be taxing. Thompson reminds students that, “Even in isolation, students have access to Bishop through tele-health.” In terms of keeping up to date with courses, each student’s experience will be individualized and based on their particular professors. Some offer Zoom, some do not. Most respond to email, some do not.

Lifestyles Editor Monte Remer in his quarantine room in Terra house. Photo by Skeet Starr

In the early days of the pandemic, comparisons of covid to influenza were political sedatives, and looked down upon by the medical community. Today, according to Thompson, considering a reported 96% vaccination rate on campus, the comparison has become more viable. When questioned via interview about the future efficacy of the Terra House isolation program Thompson stated: “In December…we had the worst flu season that I can remember here. We had way more flu on campus than covid, and we weren’t isolating anybody, or we weren't moving anybody; we were asking people to isolate. I’m imagining that we’re getting to that place with covid before long as well.” He went on to specify that the health leaders of the University would likely discuss a transition away from isolation dorms over the summer. Though this could leave students unable to isolate from their roommate. “The things that will drive big decisions about closures and masks are going to be hospitalizations and deaths. Those things…are dropping sharply.” In late August, the next class of Bearcats may find their way toward new homes in Terra house, unaware of its former purpose.

Case numbers are taken from February 1st.

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