A test-by-test chronicle of the COVID-19 cattle call on campus.
Your morning starts at home. Patient Connect, the website on which all post-COVID campus life at Boston University hinges, tells you that you’re overdue to fill out your daily survey.
Are you experiencing any of the following symptoms: A fever of 100 Fahrenheit? A new cough? A sore throat?
It’s more than a month into the semester; maybe you’ve been filling out this survey since mid-August. You click “No” for every question, pausing to wonder if you have “severe fatigue,” or just regular old Zoom fatigue. For your efforts, you receive a jarringly bright green screen.
If you weren’t awake, you are now.
It’s all self-serve. From the day students began returning to campus, BU has asked them to report any shortness of breath, while students have convinced themselves that their shortness of breath is just the extra quarantine pounds taking their toll.
If your immediate reflex is not to brush off a possible symptom because you wouldn’t want to overreact during a pandemic, then maybe it is time to close yourself off in the safety of your room and have the Student Health reps talk you down from your dry-throat-induced paranoia over the phone.
Either way, once every four days, on-campus residents must make their trek to a BU testing center. It’s clean, friendly, never too busy, and looks just as advertised.
Your off-campus friends, meanwhile, have changed their status to “attending class remotely” so that they don’t have to go.
On campus, specialists and student workers collect samples from every student at four different sites and BU tests them in its own labs to decipher the likelihood of a breakout and identify which students are infected. The COVID-positive students are isolated in an on-campus dorm, and BU’s contact-tracing system notifies any peers of their possible exposure.
Today you have an appointment. If it’s at the Rajen Kilachand Center for Integrated Life Sciences and Engineering, you’ll pass students working on Com Lawn outside, maintaining a distance from each other and you. Look for the modern building guarded by signs warning, “By passing this point, you attest to not having possible COVID-19 symptoms.” Finally, there’s a picture of the green screen that greeted you earlier. Another sign asks if you have completed your survey, and the final line of defense is a sole hand sanitizer stand.
The door warns you—this is a testing collection site—and reminds you of all the spread-prevention tactics: wear a mask, avoid contact, cover coughs, wash your hands, and please comply with signage.
As you enter the building, an often-smiling face says hello through a mask, and now it’s time to pull up that lime-green screen one more time. Patient Connect is more than a flash of color, though. It’s where you make appointments, it’s where you see your lab results, and it’s necessary for every visit.
After you’ve sanitized your hands and waited in the line of fellow students standing at six-foot intervals, the smiling face waves you through to another smiler who checks your Patient Connect appointment QR code. These are the heroes of BU’s return to campus. Without them, you wouldn’t be here.
You remind yourself of this as they attempt to involve you in idle small talk.
The first week or so of move-in, Patient Connect crashed for some students. Without the ability to pull it up on your phone, you’d get away with a screenshot from your laptop if that hadn’t crashed as well. Otherwise, no surveys and appointments for you! After a few days, they fixed it. But now that everyone is settled into their campus homes, a few days seems more dire. Sometimes, technology is a tall, thin ledge to teeter on.
You’re allocated to a counter where a pane of glass divides you from a more tired, less smiling face. They ask if you’ve taken this test before. You say yes; they explain how to do it anyway.
The original test was a packaged, regular-sized cotton swab and a vial of liquid with a screw-on cap. This proved a challenging process. Vial on the counter, swab your nose, unscrew the cap, drop in the Q-tip, spill the liquid anywhere, receive a new test.
So they replaced it. After showing your student ID, scanning your QR code, and finally closing the Patient Connect site until tomorrow, you’re handed your materials. A packaged, extra-long cotton swab and a vial of liquid with a screw-on cap.
You tell the person behind the glass to have a nice day and wonder how many people they have repeated those same instructions to since their shift started. They must be getting more tired of telling it than you are of hearing it.
Then you find a booth. There are a few, and you don’t stare at people sticking cotton swabs up their noses because you know from experience how awkward it is. The novelty has worn off anyway.
You step into one of the glass cubicles, where a sheet of wax paper and a shot glass await. A college kid’s kitchen cabinet? No. The brand-new, fool-proof, tried-and-tested COVID test.
Another more tired, less smiling face behind another pane of glass watches you put the closed vial into the shot glass to keep it upright. Now you need to unscrew it and drop the cap onto the paper, then unwrap your cotton swab before unceremoniously sticking it up your nose. Five sweeps ’round the inside of each nostril.
The attendants, while consistently bored yet patient, are a mixed bag. Some watch your every move, locking eyes as you chimney sweep your nose, even counting your rotations for you if you need the help. Some step away, giving you all the privacy you can have in a booth made of windows surrounded by your peers.
Now, here’s the tricky part. Carefully, you place the cotton end of the extra-long swab into the vial. Do not, under any circumstances, take the vial from the shot glass until this is accomplished. Then, with a slow breath and a steady hand, take the vial and, with your thumb and forefinger, break the plastic swab in half so that it stands at the same height as the vial.
Do not touch the top of the vial. Do not snap it with just your thumb.
Even attendants kind enough to step away during the nose-swabbing have returned to watch you do this properly. Their kindness and patience are no sign of trust. They trust no one.
Close the vial securely and throw the extraneous paper and plastic in the small trash can. If you succeed, you can leave your booth. If you fail, a fairy dies.
The attendant has extra materials ready for those who can’t cut it, and secretly, deep down, they probably also have a snide remark about the 70k you pay every year for an education that doesn’t teach you how to follow simple instructions.
As you leave, so does the immense pressure of not spilling liquid all over yourself, a skill you only attained 15 years ago.
You return to the world of smiling faces sans glass panes and drop your test into a jar. A staff member removes it and places the sample with all the other vials going off to labs. You’re asked to sanitize your hands before you leave.
The gel still drying on your palms, you push the door open and step out onto Comm Ave. You have completed your civic duty and are a worthy member of BU society.
Forty-eight hours later, Patient Connect will notify you via email that there are test results waiting for you on their site. If they’re contacting you through email, you can be sure you’re negative. They’d likely call if you were positive, or kidnap you in the middle of the night to safely enclose you in quarantine housing.
A dashboard reports the positive, negative, and invalid results of all student and staff tests. The numbers are low, between four and zero cases on any given day.
It’s a countdown, but you can’t see the clock. It may never reach zero, but the ticking is constant, and the element of time is in the back of everyone’s mind. When will the outbreak happen? How long will you enjoy this semblance of pre-COVID life?
Everyone knows the rules. If you didn’t read Dean of Students Kenneth Elmore’s email yourself, you’ve heard it through word of mouth: “There will be a few students who won’t take COVID-19 seriously and their stay in our community will be short-lived—if you host or attend a large off-campus or on-campus gathering, social, or party, you will be suspended from Boston University.”
You take comfort in that. Maybe you don’t.
Looks like it’s almost time for your next appointment.
This article was produced as part of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism’s Pandemic Democracy Project.
Rhian Lowndes is a journalism student at Boston University and began writing for the Dig this year. She has covered community news in the Greater Boston area and in her hometown in Pennsylvania.