A short-term rental permit displayed in a window. (Photo by Claire Bangser)

Tulane University’s quarantine policies allow undergraduates to move from on campus dorms to short-term rentals off campus, independent from the school’s quarantine facilities, after being exposed to or testing positive for the coronavirus, an option that many students appear to have taken. Once off campus, those students say, they received little communication about how to isolate.

Students who spoke to The Lens said that after telling campus contact tracers that they planned to stay in a short-term rental, they were not provided with isolation protocols. They said they didn’t hear from case managers for days.

Tulane has two school-administered facilities for students entering quarantine or isolation. Paterson Hall, an on-campus dormitory, has been set aside for students isolating after testing positive, and provides attending medical staff. Students who stay in Paterson are confined to the building, which has separate entrances and balconies for each unit. A tower of the Hyatt Regency in the CBD is available for students who have been identified as a close contact of a positive case, and need to quarantine. Students who stay there are allowed to go into the hallways during the day, but are confined to the building.

“For some the above options may be undesirable,” Tulane’s testing and tracing guidelines say. “For this reason, some students have chosen to rent an off-campus property.”

The school provides meal service for students staying in the Hyatt or Paterson Hall. Students who move off-campus — generally into short-term rental properties through sites like Airbnb — pay for both the rental and living expenses.

“While we don’t encourage our on-campus students to quarantine or isolate in short-term rentals, we understand that for some this is a more preferable option as it allows them to cook their own meals and spend time in their private yards,” wrote Michael Strecker, Tulane’s director of public relations, in an email. 

Students described worries about moving into the school-administered facilities. 

“Nobody wants to go to Paterson,” said Whit, a student who isolated in an Airbnb and asked to be identified by his first name only. He pointed to rumors about the food quality, and the fact that “you can step outside onto this little walkway, but you can’t get much fresh air or light or anything.” CDC guidelines specify that those who are COVID-positive should “not leave your home, except to get medical care.”

Every student interviewed said that they knew at least a few people who went to an Airbnb. Mackenzie Dillon, who ended up quarantining in the Hyatt, had even planned initially to go to an Airbnb with roommates. “It’s harder to get tested regularly when you’re at an Airbnb, because you have to go to a place where you could expose more people. So we wanted to go to the Hyatt first to get tested, and then we planned to go to an Airbnb. But then moneywise, we just decided it was better to stay at the Hyatt.”

According to Tulane’s COVID-19 dashboard, which reports data on testing and quarantines, the University has documented 111 active cases among students.

Below, the dashboard reports that 51 students with active infections were isolating in Paterson Hall as of September 9. That means at least 60 students with active infections were isolating off-campus as of last week. (An additional 260 students, identified as close contacts of someone who tested positive, are in quarantine in the Hyatt Regency.)

Strecker wrote that the number of students isolating off-campus represent “a small percentage of the total number of on campus students in isolation.” 

Two weeks ago, NOLA Public Schools officials announced that it would no longer use raw case counts to guide reopening plans, in part because of “the changing nature of testing and campus-based measures” as colleges went back into session.

As has been well-documented, reopened college campuses have been a major driver of outbreaks across the country this fall. After schools reopened in New Orleans, the number of positive cases in the parish jumped. In a column in The Times Picayune/New Orleans Advocate, data analyst Jeff Asher estimated that as many as half of Orleans Parish’s new COVID cases came from Tulane in the last week of August. Since that initial spike, Tulane’s positive testing rate and total number of cases have both declined steadily.

“I really don’t know why students have the option to actually decide not to go into the Paterson building, and why they have the option to go off campus,” said Susanne Straif-Bourgeois, an infectious disease epidemiologist at LSU. Her concern is that there could be “someone who tested positive for Covid. They could be asymptomatic. They find something else in New Orleans, and there is a higher risk that they expose other people.”

Tulane is allowing students off campus. Here’s what that looks like

Whit was tested on a Friday, and was called by Tulane contact tracers the next day, who told him that he was positive. 

“They said, ‘OK Whit, you can either quarantine here on campus, in Paterson. Or you can do an off-campus option,’” Whit told The Lens. “I didn’t have an off-campus option set up, so I asked if they could give me a couple hours, and they said, ‘Sure.’ ”

“So I got the AirBnB, and then I got a call from a different person, and they said, ‘We want to know what your next steps are.’ I said I’d gotten the AirBnB, and they said, ‘What’s the address?’ So I told them. And they were like, ‘OK, that’s all we need to know.’ Then that night, I moved into the Airbnb.”

But it appears that the contact tracers haven’t always followed up. A student in the school of architecture, who didn’t want to be identified by name, said that she moved into quarantine at an Uptown Airbnb after her roommate tested positive. “They called me at eight o’clock at night, and said, ‘You need to move into quarantine tonight.’ They pretty much asked me, ‘Do you want to stay at the Hyatt, or get an AirBnb?’ ”

She opted for the Airbnb, where she would have room for the materials for her architecture classes. “I called my parents, and we decided on an Airbnb. They paid for it at 10 o’clock at night. I Ubered myself there, and that was it.”

“When I was talking to them, I hadn’t had a place yet. So they were like, ‘Don’t worry about it, you don’t need to give us the address.’ ” She said that they never ended up following up about the address, although she was asked if she had access to UberEats or another food delivery service.

Unusual policy

Tulane’s off-campus rental protocol appears to be unusual among residential colleges and universities in the city. Tulane is also the only school performing surveillance of its entire student body. Patricia Murret, a spokesperson for Loyola University New Orleans, said, “I don’t think that’s ever been on the table.”

Asia Wong, Loyola’s director of student health, said that students were asked to fill out a COVID-19 plan before coming to campus in the fall, detailing what they would do if they tested positive. 

“If they’re on campus, they can isolate in our quarantine ward,” she said. They could go home, she said, “If they had family who could pick them up within 48 hours, or to whom they could transport themselves safely within 48 hours.” 

She said that the school checked in with those family members to confirm the plans.

Lauren Fox, a spokesperson for Dillard University, directed The Lens to the school’s return to campus plan, which states: “The Dent House and other residential spaces will be designated as the site for on-campus student self-isolation/quarantine. However, this will be determined by the campus physician as extreme cases may require hospitalization.”

She provided a statement from Rolland Bullard, Dillard’s vice president for Student Success, in response to a follow up question. 

“Students who test positive and are from the local area are encouraged to quarantine at home if they can do so without exposing their family to the virus. If they do not have access to those accommodations, are a student from a distant location, or are unable to travel home without using public transportation, we provide them with a designated campus room to carry out their quarantine.”

Adam Norris, a spokesperson for the University of New Orleans, which has one student isolating on campus, said that “if a student reports that they are infected, then they are isolated in a dedicated area of the residence halls. We obviously cannot prohibit infected students from leaving campus but we are encouraging them to remain and isolate on campus.”

According to Lance Sumler, a spokesperson for Xavier, “If [a student] is in housing they are required to quarantine in place, provided they have access to a private bathroom. If they don’t have a private bathroom, we will assign them to a quarantine room with a private bath. Our policy does not allow them to move to a non-campus location, unless their families live within a 90 mile radius of the university and they can go home. Otherwise, we check their rooms to confirm they are sheltering in place three times per day in person and two additional times via Zoom.”

Students say that expectations aren’t clear

According to students who spoke to The Lens, Tulane didn’t communicate expectations regarding quarantine, and did little follow-up once they were off-campus. 

“It was pretty much like, just go,” said the architecture student. “Essentially, I could have even stayed in my dorm and I don’t think they would have known. It took a couple days for a case manager to contact me.”

According to Strecker, students “are contacted within 24 hours after discussion with their contact tracer,” although he didn’t immediately respond to a question on why that may not have been the case for all students.

“They didn’t give me any instructions,” Whit said. “I just stayed in the AirBnB, relaxed, worked out. I didn’t order in enough food, really. And they never  — They didn’t even give me a day that I was supposed to come back.”

Strecker wrote that expectations for students in isolation or quarantine in Airbnbs are the “same as for our students who isolate or quarantine with us. They are to avoid contact with others, stay in their residence, monitor their symptoms and communicate with us if they become symptomatic or have any issues or unmet needs.”

He also wrote that the school was “very clear” about those expectations in writing and verbally, and would give guidance for communicating with an Airbnb host “when asked for advice about this.” He didn’t immediately respond to a follow up question as to why some students may not have received instructions.

Whit said he believes that his experience was anomalous — many of his friends had prompt follow up from contact tracers and case managers. But he also said that how he chose to quarantine seemed to be up to him.

“What I did, because I knew I had coronavirus, I wore a mask around the house, I didn’t really leave the house, and then I had this whole box of Clorox wipes, and if I was going to make myself some food or pour myself some water, I’d put it around my hand so I could grab with the wipe.”

He planned to spend 10 days in isolation, and on the final day, he was sent an email saying that he could return to campus the next day if he didn’t have symptoms.

The Lens reviewed the initial contact tracing email sent by Tulane staff, which included links at the bottom of the email to three sets of instructions: “How to Self-Isolate & Self-Monitor Guide,” “COVID-19 Off-Campus Living Guide,” and “COVID-19 FAQs.” The first contains instructions for students who have travelled recently. The second directs off-campus students to avoid grocery shopping and public transportation if they have symptoms, and to call Campus Health Services. The third lays out instructions for students off campus who have a roommate who tests positive, as well as other information about resources and quarantine timelines. However, none of the guides include specific expectations for quarantining in a short term rental.

Dillon, who quarantined in the Hyatt, said that expectations are communicated more broadly. “I know that the school is constantly reiterating through email that if you do break quarantine, you face suspension or expulsion. If I stayed in an Airbnb, I wouldn’t try to break it at all because I wouldn’t want to get suspended. From what I’ve generally seen, kids are being generally smart about it.”

The architecture student agreed.  

“Obviously the school is trying to handle so much,” she said. “You just have to be responsible yourself to do the right thing. A lot of people are honoring it because they don’t want to put anyone at risk. But it is still like, no one’s stopping me from doing what I want right now.”

But she also said that she knows some students bend the rules. 

“They’ll have their friends over from Tulane, but people who might have had COVID, where they say, it doesn’t matter if I hang out with you, because I have antibodies.”

“If students do do what they’re supposed to do, I don’t think it’s necessarily a bigger risk,” said Straif-Bourgeois. But she’s concerned about students actually following guidelines without oversight. “We’ve seen this Covid-19 fatigue going on among 18-29 year olds, she said. They’ll have parties, they hang out together.”

Examples abound from across the country of students who have broken campus policies around quarantine. In one particularly egregious case, a student at Miami University in Ohio was cited by police after they broke up a party at the house where he was in quarantine.

Strecker said that the Office of Student Conduct has investigated some reports of students breaking guidelines while off campus. 

“We do have an online reporting system and encourage our community to report inappropriate behaviors,” he said. 

A city spokesperson, Trey Caruso, said that “the New Orleans Health Department is in regular contact with Tulane University and has reviewed their plans for quarantine and isolation. There have been no specific conversations regarding off-campus quarantine.”

He deferred to the state Department of Health regarding expectations for quarantining students, saying “Any guidelines on how to quarantine or isolate should come from LDH in conjunction with their contract tracing team.”

However, he said that the fact that students were moving off-campus wasn’t concerning to the city. 

“New Orleanians are asked to quarantine at home on a regular basis. The location of quarantine is not of concern as long as they are truly staying home and away from other household members.”

Aly Neel, a spokesperson with the Louisiana Department of Health, said “We’ve not been made aware of any details like this. We’d need to refer back to Tulane for information on where and how their students are quarantining.” However, she said, “From our perspective, the guidance for individuals who need to quarantine following an exposure would not change at all based on if they were a college student or not.”

Update: This post was updated with information from Xavier University.