I caught coronavirus at UNC Chapel Hill

Brianna Hayes, Opinion contributor
Published 7:00 a.m. ET Oct. 6, 2020 | Updated 9:34 a.m. ET Oct. 6, 2020

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I thought the end of my senior year of high school was disappointing. But then I noticed coronavirus symptoms on my first day of college classes.

During my senior year of high school, I went home after school on a Friday in March, excited that we might have two weeks off. Even then I didn’t think it was realistic to expect the full break, and I expected to go back to school the following Monday. But that Friday would be my last real day of high school ever. College visits, prom, graduation and so many more great events to seal off my final year of high school were all thrown out the window. All that I had looked forward to in high school was taken away.

Even though I was unable to celebrate these exciting milestones with all my friends and family, I was hopeful for college. I was accepted into my dream school, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and was eager for the time in my life when I would make many of my best memories, as everyone had always told me happened during college. 

Optimistic about the fall semester, I was able to move in a couple days before classes started on Monday, Aug. 10. On the first day of classes, only one of mine was in-person. The 40-person class was held in a 200-person lecture hall and seats were blocked off, so everybody was spaced out appropriately. Later that day is when my symptoms started to develop.

Entering quarantine on campus

I didn’t recognize my dry mouth as a symptom until the following morning when I had a scratchy, sore throat that wouldn’t go away no matter how much I hydrated myself. I called campus health about getting tested when I was unable to focus in my online classes from feeling sickly. This was the second day of class.

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I made the mile walk to campus health the next day. I had been wearing a mask full time, even when I was sleeping. I felt so sickly and exhausted at this point, but we could not figure out how I could’ve contracted the virus. No parties, no gatherings — how could it be possible? The nurse who performed my COVID-19 test seemed so sure that I did not have the virus that she took off her protective gear while in the room with me.

As a precaution, she was still required to send me to the quarantine dorms at while I waited three to five days for my test results. Campus health gave me a bottle of acetaminophen, the only sort of treatment I ever got. For my transition to quarantine, I walked back to my dorm and gathered enough things for at least a week. You may not think you’ll need many things, but when you’re moving into a room with basically nothing but a bed and a refrigerator, it piles up. I brought all my bedding, and two containers of essential items.

Brianna Hayes after moving into her original dorm in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in August 2020. (Photo: Family handout)

At this point my body was completely exhausted and I had a 100 degree fever. Over the course of a couple trips, I moved everything myself and was not allowed any help.

Alone, isolated, locked out

I was one of the very first people to move into the quarantine dorms, so the building was practically empty — no one to help and nobody working in the building. Whether it was the unstaffed building, moving everything myself while sick, or the complete isolation, those who I share my experience with are most outraged by the lack of support.

Besides my test at campus health, every one of my interactions was held over the phone. Students in quarantine were given one bag meal a day, which mostly consisted of snack foods, but we also had three bottles of water and one hot meal.

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During my first day in quarantine, I got locked out of my room while looking for my first meal which was supposed to be left outside my door. I had forgotten that the doors in this building automatically lock, unlike my normal residence hall. I was frustrated because it was nearly one in the afternoon and I hadn’t gotten my food yet, and now, I was locked out of my room without my phone and wearing only a sweatshirt. I wandered every floor of the building until I finally found a janitor on the basement floor who let me in my room. I felt defeated and alone; it was a conflict that could’ve been avoided if the buildings weren’t left completely unstaffed.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is moving to online classes just one week after reopening in-person. (Photo: AP)

Two days later, I got a call from campus health telling me that I had tested positive for COVID-19. This meant I had to move all my stuff, once again, to the isolation dorm. I called a service that UNC provided to drive all my things to the new building but I ended up sitting outside, waiting, for over an hour. I couldn’t go back inside to wait because I had already turned in my key. When the service finally arrived, they had me walk all my things down a block before getting in the van, again, with no help.

The isolation dorm had no elevator and now had to carry them down a long hallway and up two flights of stairs. By myself. If there was rock bottom, this was it. After settling into my new room, the rest of my week-long stay was uneventful. There isn’t much to do when the university doesn’t offer anything and the only belongings you have are the necessities.

Another semester of uncertainty

I was isolated both mentally and physically. Nurses called to check on my symptoms every day to make sure I was okay, but overall, I did not really feel cared for. I felt as though I was pushed away and locked in a room, meant to only keep me away from everyone else.

During this time and between all the moves, I was expected to keep up with my classes all while having COVID-19. While I was in isolation, UNC announced that all classes would be moved online and that all students had to move off campus, with some exceptions. Everyone, including myself, said that it was just a matter of time until we were sent home. I just didn’t think it would happen so fast.

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I got out of isolation on Aug. 21, ready to pick up the rest of my things and go home. This time, I had my dad there to help me. I never had a second COVID-19 test before going back to my original residence hall to get the rest of my things and finish moving. After a week and a half of exhaustedly moving, struggling to keep up in my classes, no human contact, and hardly eating, I was ready to go home.

Will I go back to campus in the spring? After reflecting on the two weeks I had in college, I don’t feel confident. A disappointing start to my first year turned into something much more disheartening.

As I face the immense difficulties of remote learning at home, it’s hard to imagine the future or comprehend that there’s more than what’s happening right now. If UNC were to reopen in the spring, I don’t know if I would want to go back to a place where my most prominent memories are feeling isolated and unsupported.

Brianna Hayes is a first-year student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is from Wilmington, North Carolina. 

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