UT Austin students with COVID-19 are expected to self-isolate off campus

Education

A sign at UT Austin’s McCombs School of Business ahead of the fall 2020 semester, alerting campus community members of precautions to avoid the spread of COVID-19. (KXAN Photo/ Alyssa Goard).

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The University of Texas at Austin clarified to KXAN Tuesday that all students who test positive for COVID-19 are expected to relocate off campus to self isolate. The university said this applies to students, whether or not they have a roommate.

As of Sept. 1, the university’s COVID-19 dashboard reports a total of 25 UT Austin students have tested positive for COVID-19 since Aug. 17, the date which students first began moving back to on-campus dormitories. On Sept. 1, the university reported a total of eight cases among students, the highest number the university had seen since July 5.

UT Austin spokesperson J.B. Bird added these students can either complete their isolation at a location of their choosing off campus or by going to the Austin-Travis County isolation facility. The isolation facility is a converted Austin hotel that has been used since March to house those who have tested positive for COVID-19 or fear they may have the virus. It is free to stay there, and those who do get three meals a day, minor medical care, mental healthcare and WiFi.

When KXAN asked if UT has an on-campus isolation facility where students can go for self-isolation, UT referred us to the previous statement that students need to relocate off campus to self isolate.

A screenshot from UT Austin’s COVID-19 dashboard as of the evening of September 1.

If you want to make arrangements to stay at the isolation facility, Austin Public Health says to call the intake line at (512) 810-7554.

UT Austin dorm residents with COVID-19

Monday, UT confirmed to KXAN that two students living in on-campus residence halls had tested positive for COVID-19: one in Jester Residence Hall and one in San Jacinto Residence Hall. These cases were first reported by UT Austin student newspaper, the Daily Texan. The Daily Texan also reported Tuesday campus community members had received emails about a third confirmed COVID-19 case in an on-campus dorm: Kinsolving Residence Hall.

When KXAN asked about the Kinsolving Residence Hall Tuesday, UT spokesperson JB Bird said he is not in a position to confirm data like that in real-time or on an hourly basis throughout the day. Bird instead referred KXAN to the UT COVID-19 dashboard. He also said he was not able to confirm the total number of students who live on the UT campus who have tested positive for COVID-19 at this point.

Bird said a complication with reporting this data is that on-campus is a “nebulous” term when it comes to describing COVID-19 cases, “once you get beyond the residence halls, since we have a wide array of situations between fully-online students living in Austin or living remotely, fully-online faculty, and faculty and students who divide their time in some portion of online vs. in-person or on-campus activities.”

“We have no definitive way to know where someone contracts the virus, so that student’s positive could relate to campus – or not,” Bird said. “The science doesn’t give anyone that precise of a window.”

The Austin-Travis County isolation facility

Presently, the UT students living on campus who have tested positive for COVID-19 either have to find a location off campus to move to temporarily, or they have to go to the city’s isolation facility.

How would a student without a car get to the isolation facility?

Bryce Bencivengo with the city’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management explained when anyone calls the intake line to be admitted to the facility, the people on the intake line can arrange transportation either through Capital Metro public transit or through a ride-share option like Uber or Lyft.

Bencivengo said for UT community members who live off campus, there are no additional steps required to admit them to the isolation facility. Those UT community members would just need to call the intake line and arrange transport just like any other Austinite would.

Beds in a room for a patient at the Austin-Travis County COVID-19 Isolation Facility. (KXAN Photo/ Alyssa Goard).

“The difference is when students are housed on-campus,” he said.

Bencivengo noted currently, UT Austin and the City of Austin do not have a written agreement about the process for isolating UT students who live on campus in the isolation facility. However, he said the city and UT have a general principle for how to make this happen that they’ve agreed upon and are working on a document for both entities to sign.

In the meantime, Bencivengo said the city is still happy to accept any UT Austin community members — whether they live on campus or off campus — at the isolation facility through the normal intake phone line.

The city has one isolation facility that is operational and another back-up location for a second isolation facility identified. The facility currently in use can fit around 200 guests.

A hallway leading to rooms for guests at the Austin-Travis County COVID-19 Isolation Facility. (KXAN Photo/ Alyssa Goard).

KXAN asked the city a hypothetical question: what if there were 300 UT Austin students who live on-campus who requested to go to the isolation facility?

Bencivengo said the current isolation facility could not fit 300 people.

“If we were talking about a number that large, we would have to talk about a different solution,” he said, which he noted could include opening up that second isolation facility.

Other options for students

Some private student housing options off campus offer locations where their residents can self-isolate.

The off-campus Scottish Rite Dormitory houses women who attend UT Austin and SRD director Mary Mazurek said the dormitory does have several rooms set aside where people can quarantine if they are unable to return to their homes.

Mazurek said four SRD residents have tested positive for COVID-19 so far. Of those women who has tested positive, Mazurek said they were exposed to the virus “outside of SRD to the best of their recollection.” When these residents test positive, they are asked to return home to their families if possible, but if that is not an option they can stay at the rooms SRD has set aside. Before students who have tested positive can return to living at SRD, Mazurek said they have to either get a negative COVID-19 test result or they must have completed the CDC-recommended isolation period of 10 days after symptoms start and at least 24 hours after a fever goes away.

“The girls have been wonderful, that they have come forward to us when [they tested] positive they told us who they may have been around, we have done our own internal contract tracing within the dorm,” Mazurek said, noting that SRD is making sure residents who may have been exposed get tested for COVID-19.

Some residents, she said, have struggled to get tested through UT so the dorm has been working to help residents find other locations to go to for testing. Mazurek noted an added challenge for SRD has been working to find locations to bring residents to for testing who may not have insurance or a car.

“I think it’s a big wake up call for all of these young students, to find out ‘oh it really can happen to us,'” she said. “They’re afraid, they’re young, for most of them this is their first time away from home.”

UT Austin continues to do proactive community testing for asymptomatic individuals on campus and posts those numbers weekly on its COVID-19 dashboard. From Aug. 17 (when students first began moving into on-campus dormitories for the fall semester) through Aug.30, UT reports it carried out 1,372 tests, with only one of those tests coming back with a clinical positive result.

UT told KXAN last week it has the capacity to complete as many as 5,000 COVID-19 tests per week.

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