Update:On Friday morning, the Press-Citizen published a profile of the anonymous student, identifying her as Annie Gaughan, 18, from Park Ridge, Illinois. Gaughan reportedly left the UI campus earlier this week and is staying in a hotel in Naperville, Illinois.
The return of University of Iowa students to Iowa City is always a bittersweet time for townies, but this move-in season has tapped into much deeper anxieties as a county which has had nearly 2,300 confirmed COVID-19 cases adds roughly 30,000 more people to its most populous city. Young people — responsible for a rise in COVID-19 cases in Iowa, according to IDPH — have already been spotted gathering in large groups, outdoors and in downtown bars, with no masks or social distancing.
But an anonymous story posted to a UI meme page on Instagram has sharpened fears on the parts of both students and locals that the university is unprepared to handle even a single case of COVID-19.
Sent to @uiowamemepage via text message and shared publicly on the page’s Instagram story, the student, a UI freshman who had recently moved into Daum residence hall, describes walking to the hospital to get a COVID-19 test Sunday afternoon — only their second night on the UI campus — after suffering from a headache and low-grade fever. They said they received the results that evening: positive.
The student immediately informed their RA, they said.
“I was sent to my room to quarantine and it took over 4 hours for them to figure out what to do with me. Eventually after 11:30, I was told I would be moved to an isolation room in Currier, room N012. I was told to gather my things and walk by myself from Daum to currier with a heavy cart of my things and struggling to get up the ramps with my things, all while being in a strange place late at night.”
Others seemed hesitant to help the student move, they said, the word having spread among residence hall staff that they’d tested positive for COVID-19.
“After getting to my room, it was AWFUL! It was dirty, gross, and disgusting. I wouldn’t put my worst enemy in those rooms.”
The student was told these were the only rooms available to them, or they would be removed from the residence halls altogether.
“I had no choice but to stay there. The hall coordinator that was in charge of my relocation was so disrespectful and talked down to me the whole time. He alluded to the fact that me getting covid was my fault and that there’s nothing they could do about that.”
The student said they then had a panic attack and paramedics had to be called.
“Eventually I was so exhausted from arguing with these people that I gave up and just slept on the floor,” they wrote. “The mattress had dirt and dust all over it so I didn’t feel comfortable sleeping on them. I woke up the next morning to ants crawling on my blankets on the floor. I was mortified.”
“The worst part of all this,” the student concluded, “is that I was told by staff that my roommate and I were not allowed to tell our parents about the situation and we also couldn’t tell the people we had come into contact with the night before. I told them myself because I was appalled that they were keeping this a secret.”
Little Village reached out to the University of Iowa for comment on the student’s story, and was forwarded a statement from UI Housing and Dining Senior Director Von Stange.
“The experience described does not meet the expectations of the university, Housing and Dining, and most importantly you, the students. For that, I am deeply sorry,” Stange wrote.
“Students and employees should self-report a positive test to aid in containment efforts and so the university can assist with academic, housing, and work arrangements. The university will provide isolation space for residence hall students diagnosed with COVID-19 and space to quarantine close contacts … The university will share the current number of self-reported cases each Friday, beginning Aug. 28, in the COVID-19 Campus Update.”
“On behalf of our entire team, I want to express my sincere apologies for the mistakes that have been made and pledge our commitment to help make this semester one that is memorable, educational, and engaging.”
Unlike the state’s other two public universities, UI has not been testing students for the virus before they move into residence halls, saying in a Aug. 3 statement that “poorly administered mass testing can result in damaged or inconclusive results and excessive false negative.”
Pre-move-in testing at Iowa State University, which has a larger student population than UI, has found 175 students with COVID-19 thus far.
The post by @uiowamemepage isn’t the first to stir fears about UI’s lack of preparedness when it comes to COVID-19. An email exchange between a student and UI President Bruce Harreld demonstrated a cavalier regard for student safety on the part of Harreld, who was one of only two university presidents in the Big 10 to vote against canceling the fall football season.
Hannah Zadeh had reached out to Harreld and other UI administrators asking them to support the student government’s call to begin the semester with online-only instruction.
“You, your fellow students, all faculty, all staff, everyone has a choice. If you don’t feel comfortable, stay home. If you don’t fell [sic] comfortable, take all you classes online,” Harreld wrote in an Aug. 8 email to Zadeh, authenticated by the Press-Citizen. “… A vocal few shouldn’t remove the right of choice for all the rest of our community.”
“This is all about choice,” Harreld continued. “Please do what is best for you and please resist imposing your choice on others.”
On Wednesday, the Campaign to Organize Graduate Students (COGS) led a march of more than 80 UI students, workers and community members to the President’s Residence to demonstrate against UI’s plan to hold roughly 40 percent of classes in-person as cases and deaths from COVID-19 continue to surge in Johnson County. “Save our lives! Go online!” and “Black lives matter!” were among the chants by protesters.
“The reason that COGS organized this is not just because we are worried about graduate workers,” COGS Vice President Derick Delloro told the crowd Wednesday. “We are worried about our students. We are worried about our professors, about the old people who live in our retirement communities. We are worried about people at the hospital.”
COGS will join Iowa Student Action and nurses from SEIU Local 199 for another rally in favor of online classes Thursday at 4 p.m.