By Hannah Ostrov
The Hyatt Regency— a gleaming high-rise hotel that sits adjacent to the Superdome in the heart of New Orleans business district and what used to function as a hurricane refuge center after one of the worst storms in New Orleans History has some new residents in the time of COVID-19: Tulane University students who are quarantining after exposure to the virus.
Arising from a need to separate students who were exposed to COVID-19, Tulane now contact traces those who may have been exposed to the virus. Meanwhile, students who test positive stay in Paterson House, a dormitory functioning as an infirmary for the 2020 fall semester.
The Hyatt Regency was chosen because of its size and ability to provide needed resources to students, according to the Tulane Hullabaloo. There are Tulane-provided shuttles to usher students from the Hyatt’s Downtown location to Tulane’s Uptown campus.
Both Sahiti Pottlapelli and Genevieve Corkery are Tulane students who received calls in the midst of the already-chaotic first semester informing them that they had been exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID-19.
Ms. Corkery, a junior and a residential advisor at Tulane, was expecting the phone call. She didn’t know when it was going to happen—all she knew was that she had seen someone she had recently been in contact with quarantining in Paterson House. At Tulane University, this means she had been in contact with someone who had tested positive for COVID-19.
Ms. Pottlapelli is a senior living off-campus with three housemates. She was also expecting a call from the university. Her friend had recently tested positive for COVID-19, and informed Sahiti that she had been exposed in close contact.
Both were given the choice to quarantine at the Hyatt, and both decided it would be beneficial to those around them to go into quarantine at this off-campus hotel.
After being brought to the Hyatt, Pottlapelli and Corkery described the check-in as identical to that of any other guest staying at the Hyatt. The only difference was that the Tulane students were confined to a singular tower at the Hyatt.
I was able to speak to the Hyatt Regency’s customer service line to inquire about how the hotel was separating guests from Tulane students quarantining. Though Tulane students are quarantined in their own separate tower, the Hyatt did not explicitly reveal that these students are quarantining on the same site as the other guests on their website or on Google. Upon being asked if there were students exposed to COVID-19 quarantining at their hotel, the customer service line at the Hyatt Regency provided the information that “yes, there are students quarantining at the hotel following a COVID test, but not to worry because they are in a separate tower and it is simply school procedure for them to quarantine.” Upon being asked how the spread of COVID-19 was being controlled in the hotel, they responded that masks were recently required throughout the hotel except in the rooms where guests stay, and that the indoor dining restaurants were closed.
Though both Corkery and Pottlapelli ended up testing negative after being in quarantine for four or five days, they remained quarantined in the case that the test was incorrect or that they began to show symptoms. Pottlapelli was in the Hyatt for ten days, though she quarantined a total of fourteen days. Corkery was at the Hyatt for a total of fourteen days.
Fourteen days of isolation can be a very intense experience for students who are used to spending much of their time at university socializing. Since most classes are now accessible online, students quarantining at the Hyatt are expected to stay in their rooms, and leave only to use the microwave at the end of the hall or to utilize the slot they reserved on the pool deck.
“I’m an introvert,” Ms. Corkery says, “so it wasn’t hard for me to be alone. But I can see how it would be difficult for someone who doesn’t like being alone for so long.”
Ms. Pottlapelli didn’t have quite the same experience— she felt lonely, but it was her first time quarantining, so this did not surprise her. “It wasn’t bad; I mostly just went to class and studied. [I] did some personal reading. It was lonely but a necessity, so I knew I would not infect anyone if I was positive,” Pottlapelli describes.
“Technically,” said Ms. Corkery, “you could just walk out,” she guesses. Since both she and Ms. Pottlapelli stayed mostly in their rooms, neither worried about being caught leaving or spreading germs to other guests.
Likewise, neither felt in danger of being exposed to other students quarantining at the Hyatt. Pottlapelli describes mainly feeling worried for her friend who tested positive, more so than an active fear of contracting COVID-19 from the hotel. Corkery did not feel as though she would contract COVID-19 staying at the Hyatt. Both Corkery and Pottlapelli felt safe and well-taken care of.
According to both women, the Tulane staff was friendly, accommodating, and helpful. Corkery describes forgetting something back at her dorm, and that after communicating with her Tulane contact, her belongings were brought to her in under 20 minutes.
Ms. Corkery raved about the food at the Hyatt. “It was like a friendly ghost was dropping off my meal,” she said with a smile. She never saw anyone bring her the food, there was just a loud thump on the door and a beautifully prepared meal was waiting for her.
“There were no negative aspects except the being in quarantine itself,” Ms. Corkery said. “It was absolutely the best it could have been.”
Both Corkery and Pottlapelli agree that Tulane is making the right decision to quarantine exposed students in the Hyatt Regency. It is a safe, controlled, accommodating environment. In addition, Tulane provided almost everything for free, including the shuttle to the hotel and the food. Other services were offered as well, such as extra coffee and room service for an additional $3. Laundry service was provided, and there was even a sign-up sheet for those who wanted outside deck time. Guests were given their own small balcony that was connected to each room. In terms of recreation, Pottlapelli describes, “the pool was open with specific hours that you had to register for, but when I was there, people could not go inside the pool. It was mostly expected that you would stay in your room and not go into other people’s rooms.”
Corkery thinks Tulane is doing a pretty good job under the circumstances. “Yeah, people love to complain, but they [Tulane] are doing as much as they can including penalizing people who don’t get tested and contacting those who were exposed really quickly.” Pottlapelli added, “I honestly think Tulane is doing a good job compared to other universities. The people who are monitoring and coordinating the Hyatt answer questions in a timely manner and check in to make sure everything is going well. I really had no complaints about staying at the Hyatt.”
So where do you go if you test positive for the virus? Julie Tran is a first year graduate student at Tulane who was quarantined in Paterson House after being contacted by the University.
Though she described feeling “stuck” in Paterson, Ms. Tran overall enjoyed her time in quarantine. Tran described how her friends would come to visit and sometimes even bring her Dunkin’ Donuts or other food, since students quarantining in Paterson were not allowed to leave. She described how there was a security guard who sits outside Paterson to make sure students don’t leave— those who do are threatened with expulsion from the university. “I didn’t have a lot going on at the time,” Tran recounts, “but if I had, it would have been difficult to keep up with all of my coursework.”About whether she thinks Paterson is a good place for Tulane students to be quarantining, Julie said, “I think it is a good place if you are a freshman or sophomore living on campus with friends also living on campus because they can easily go outside and visit you or bring you things. But, if you were older than that, then this would probably not occur due to a lower likelihood of those things happening.” As observed from passing by Paterson House at any time of day, students gather to talk to their friends in quarantine at Paterson. As many students pass by this dorm on-campus (or even upon entering Paterson for a COVID-19 test), they bring gifts to those in quarantine and chat from the rust iron balconies that embellish the old dormitory.
Paterson did have services similar to that of the Hyatt Regency since students here were also unable to leave their rooms. “There was a laundry service in which we put our clothes in a laundry bag and left it outside our door. There were no laundry rooms for us to go into. We also did not have access to snack machines, but they would come out in carts full of snacks for snack rounds,” says Tran. “I would say the only negative aspects are lack of transparency and lack of space. Not everyone was fully educated on different policies or were not super communicative. The lack of space could be really depressing since it doesn’t feel mentally or physically good to feel trapped in a space.” Ms. Tran says she doesn’t see a reason why other schools should not use Tulane as an example.
As the semester comes to a close, cases are spiking again. After not spiking for a while, the beginning of November after a Category 2 hurricane hitting New Orleans and the celebration of Halloween bring new challenges to Tulane University.
With this spike in cases comes Paterson Hall shrinking in available capacity as the Hyatt continues to fill. Thus, with these changes comes the introduction of another off-campus hotel into Tulane’s quarantine zones. The Jung Hotel appeared on the COVID-19 dashboard following the increase of all undergraduate COVID testing to three times a week. Though there is no information provided by the university on this additional locale, the Jung Hotel has already reached up to 53 isolation cases as of 15 November 2020.
If you look up the Jung Hotel New Orleans, Google has a small notice stating, “This hotel offers special rooms for COVID-19 responders. Contact the hotel for details.” This is a vital piece of information which the Hyatt Regency lacks on Google, the Hyatt Regency homepage, or otherwise. Information on Paterson Hall is regularly updated in newsletters sent to Tulane students’ email.
With the global COVID-19 pandemic on the rise at Tulane University, how does one prevent catching this possibly deadly virus? Much of how this virus spreads is through direct contact, which is why it has been rampaging through the dormitories at Tulane. Some of those especially at risk are residential advisors, many of whom view Tulane University as an irresponsible employer, as they are putting Tulane RAs at a higher risk living in the dormitories.
In response to this increased risk, the university has begun to give increased pay to Tulane tour guides who also face increased risk by being in close contact with prospective students and parents, who may or may not already have contracted COVID-19. Due to the RAs’ increased risk of contracting the virus, each was compensated in Wavebucks, which they can only spend on food at the university. To curb the spread of the virus, which was showing increased cases in Sharp Hall and Monroe Hall (larger freshman dormitories on campus), the university also split up the freshman population into those who could eat in the dining hall and those who lived in Sharp and Monroe, who were only allowed to eat in the dining pavilion for eight days. This seemingly unjust separation coupled with what seemed to be a discrepancy in pay led to the residential advisors in Monroe Hall organizing a strike against the university.
I organized a second interview with Ms. Corkery following this spike and consequential strike to get a residential advisor’s take on the unrest in the dorms and on-campus in general.
“Lots of people blame housing for their own contracting of COVID-19, but it is everyone’s individual choice to come to campus instead of remain online, to go out, and to wear a mask or not wear a mask,” Corkery explains. She still believes despite the spike in cases that the fully paid room and board the residential advisors receive as payment for being an RA is worth the risk. “Many students feel as though the only way they can pay for Tulane’s tuition is to become an RA. In that way, there is some pressure to continue to do this job in the time of a deadly pandemic.” Despite this, Corkery believes housing at Tulane provided more than enough time for RAs to step down from the position after learning of the spread of COVID to the United States at the beginning of 2020. She explains that “one of the RAs stepped down after learning they would be doing this job during a pandemic, their boss totally understood, everyone else supported this person in this position, and there was a giant window of time to drop out of this position.” She plans to continue to be an RA into the second semester of her junior year and throughout her upcoming senior year.
Ms. Corkery says she has been informed that the Jung Hotel may just be a contingency plan while the cases spike to unexpected numbers following Halloween and Hurricane Zeta, thus explaining the lack of public information given out by Tulane, but nothing appears to be set in stone with regard to the Jung Hotel.
With the spring semester on the horizon, what other challenges will Tulane University face? Will quarantining at hotels rented out by Tulane become the norm as the pandemic rages on? Only the future will tell.
Pottlapelli, Tran, and Corkery are back home— safe, COVID-free, and introspective following their quarantining at Tulane outposts. The future of Tulane University remains unknown, but in-person classes are still set to resume in the spring semester.