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After undergraduate tests positive, housemates decide whether to self-quarantine

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On Friday evening, University President Marc Tessier-Lavigne sent an all-campus email announcing that an undergraduate had tested positive for COVID-19, marking the first known confirmed case of the disease in a Stanford student. 

“That’s when we found out,” a senior living in the same Row house as the infected undergraduate told The Daily. “They sent out the all-school email before they told us.”

On Thursday, after the undergraduate had developed a fever, residents made the decision to self-quarantine within the house while a community member drove the undergraduate to Stanford Hospital for testing, according to a student living in the residence.

The Daily is withholding the name of the infected undergraduate’s residence, as well as the undergraduate’s identity, out of concern for student privacy.

On Friday night, after confirmation that the test had come back positive, the house grappled with the fallout, as residents faced the possibility of coronavirus exposure and the reality of new University requirements mandating that nearly all students leave campus by Wednesday at 5 p.m. 

At an in-person meeting with representatives from Residential Education, Vaden Health Center and Counseling and Psychological Services, University administrators recommended that the house’s residents self-quarantine if they had come into “close contact” with the infected undergraduate — defined as within six feet for a prolonged period of time — after the undergraduate began to show symptoms, according to two students who live in the undergraduate’s residence. 

Students were told they could get tested for the virus if they were showing symptoms. According to multiple students, some students were tested on Saturday and are awaiting their test results.

If students had only “casual contact” with the infected undergraduate and were not exhibiting symptoms, University administrators told them that they do not need to self-quarantine, according to two students living in the residence, advice that one resident understood as telling them they “don’t need to worry.” 

These guidelines are consistent with the instructions posted on the University’s webpage. The guidelines for close and casual contact are also consistent with those provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), assuming that students were using recommended precautions for home care and home isolation.

According to the CDC, living in the same household as a person confirmed to have coronavirus while using recommended protections counts as medium risk, meaning that people who do not show symptoms should remain at home, practice social distancing, actively monitor well-being and postpone long-distance commercial travel. People who were in the same indoor environment as an individual with coronavirus for a prolonged period of time but did not come into close contact with them are only recommended to practice self-observation and have no restrictions on movement, according to the CDC.

“The health officials gave us a lot of personal choice for whether or not to self isolate which did make the decision a little difficult, but those who feel like they are at risk of exposure (myself included) are self isolating,” a student living in the residence told The Daily via text.

The same administrators held a Zoom meeting for individuals who had come into contact with the infected undergraduate but did not live in the residence. 

For some students, the University’s instructions raised red flags. 

“We were told that only people who had direct contact with [the infected undergraduate] since [the undergraduate] had symptoms have to worry, but we also know that the virus can be contagious before people get symptoms,” a senior living in the residence said. “That recommendation feels concerning to me. We’re all in the same space, eating the same food, living in close quarters. [The infected undergraduate] interacted with these people, and they’re interacting with each other.”

People are believed to be most contagious when they are showing symptoms, but spread may occur before symptoms appear, according to the CDC. The CDC also advises that it is possible for coronavirus to spread by touching a surface that has the virus on it and then touching one’s face, but “this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.” 

Some students took issue with a perceived lack of guidance from the University. 

“I feel supported from the university but did struggle with having to make the decision of whether or not to self isolate, as they [Stanford] left it largely up to our personal judgement,” a student living in the undergraduate’s residence wrote via text message to The Daily. 

University spokesperson E.J. Miranda did not respond to specific questions from The Daily, but he wrote that Stanford “continue[s] to work closely with local, state, and federal agencies to prevent the further spread of the virus and follow their latest recommended guidelines.” 

“We share those guidelines as well as advice and information about COVID-19 directly with individuals during the contact tracing — which is based on information obtained from the individual who has tested positive,” Miranda wrote. “Campus health officials typically make themselves personally available to the contacted individuals in case the students have additional questions or concerns.”

On Saturday, students living in the residence were removed from the building for several hours while the building underwent a deep clean, called a “fogging.”

Over the next four days, nearly all of the house’s residents are set to scatter across the country, per the University’s announcement that only students “who have no other option than to be here” will be allowed to remain in on-campus housing.

Students are unsure of whether the University will make exceptions due to possible coronavirus exposure. A student living in the residence told The Daily that multiple residents had already had their petitions to stay on campus denied, and that University representatives told residents they would be working on that issue “in real time.”

“By sending us home, we could be spreading it [the virus] to other people,” said a senior living in the residence. 

Microbiology and immunology professor Robert Siegel ’76 M.A. ’77 M.D. ’90 told The Daily that there are risks to the students even if they are not carriers of the virus.

“If students have tested negative and are allowed to stay on campus, where they live in close proximity, there is a chance that the infection may be introduced into the population and spread rapidly,” Siegel wrote. “If infection-negative students are sent home by plane or public transport, they run the risk of being infected as a result of being in prolonged close contact with individuals of unknown status from diverse places.”

Contact Erin Woo at erinkwoo ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Erin Woo '21 is a Managing Editor of News. A communications major and creative writing minor, she plans to pursue a career in journalism. She has also reported for The Mercury News and WNYC. Contact her at erinkwoo 'at' stanford.edu.