Isolation room 336 smelled like cleaning products and fresh linens the first time I entered it. When I hurried out the door on my fourth and final day in the COVID hotel, the air that followed me was thick with the odor of soggy, untouched food and unhinged boredom.
I got my positive COVID-19 test results on Jan. 28. A few hours after I got the dreaded email from the health clinic, I got a call from a COVID case manager who told me to pack a bag because I would be spending the next four to eight days in a hotel room by myself.
“Fort Lewis is using both on campus housing and the hotel for COVID isolation,” Allison Riggs, the assistant to the dean of student engagement, said. “At most we’ve had 50 rooms rented at the hotel and 10 rooms on campus. If the student has a car, that helps determine whether we put them in the hotel or on campus.”
I packed my luggage into my car and drove myself to my temporary home. I stood in line behind a couple who looked to be from out of town and felt like a masked hazard. After inching further away, I wondered whether the regular guests knew about the isolated students who were staying in the hotel.
“We don’t hide that we have isolation rooms from the guests but we don’t bring it to their attention unless they ask,” Ron Wells, the general manager who works at the hotel, said. “We keep our regular guests on a different floor, and the people in isolation are expected to stay in their rooms.”
When I first arrived, I jumped on the two queen sized beds. Then, I raided the bag of snacks that Fort Lewis put in the room, unpacked my five pairs of sweatpants, took a nice hot shower and turned on the cable TV, all within the first hour of my stay.
“It gets lonely sitting in a room all by yourself,” Everly Ivener, a Fort Lewis College student who stayed at the hotel for seven days, said. “Being stuck in a random hotel with no one else is not very fun.”
Time moves slowly when there are regulations on how I can spend it.
“They put a fidget spinner in my room, and I played with it for a week straight,” Ivener said. “I watched a ridiculous amount of Master Chef and made bracelets from a kit that I had never used before. By the end, I would do nothing all day and was easily entertained. ”
I filled out a form online, requesting that I get two meals a day delivered to my door.
The first meal that showed up was cold and soggy. It was eggs, sausage and biscuits with gravy at 7pm, but after two minutes in the microwave, I was satisfied with the results. This is how most of my meals were, unappetizing until microwaved.
“My parents Instacarted me groceries a few times, so I could make my own meals because the food wasn’t great and they didn’t follow my lactose intolerance request,” Mckenzie Radloff, a Fort Lewis College student who stayed in the room across from mine said.
The food was delivered by mystery messengers twice a day, and by the time I retrieved it from the door, they were gone.
“We have employees and volunteers on campus from all different departments who signed up to help with meal deliveries to make them as efficient as possible,” Riggs explained. “Everyone is trying the best they can.”
The meals come from on campus, and then are transported to the hotel. It’s hard to keep them hot when there are twenty or so people to deliver to, Riggs said.
When I first arrived, the room felt like luxury, but the longer I stayed, the less appreciative I became.
After a few days, the room was dirty and there were lots of discarded cardboard boxes with half eaten meals piled up by the singular trash can that I didn’t know how to dispose of.
This didn’t feel like the hotel’s fault though, since they were merely providing the students a place to stay.
“We have isolation rooms, we don't clean them or go near them, it’s on the students to take care of their own rooms,” Wells said. “I don’t think they’re going through much trash.”
There was one larger trash can at the end of the hall but it was full, Ivener said.
“I brought in large trash bags from my car and filled two of them,” Sam Hill, a fellow student in isolation, said.
Around day three, I was dancing to Taylor Swift, tallying up all the supplies and food I had gone through, and watching episode after episode of TV shows that all blended together in my mind.
I was in touch with my teachers, and they all provided me with the necessary materials to stay on track but it wasn’t the same as being in class.
“I need structure, and being stuck in the hotel room made me struggle to stay organized and up on all my school work,” Radloff said. “I was excited to get back to some kind of schedule.”
I took an antigen test on day four, the sixth day since I was presumed positive, and it came back negative.
I was released from the hotel.
“We ask students to take an antigen test on day six, and if it comes back negative then they are good to go,” Ali Rhoades, one of three COVID case managers, said. “If it comes back positive then it is likely that the student still has the virus so they would have to stay another four days to complete the full 10 day isolation.”
It felt good to be back on campus, since I had only been in the hotel over the weekend, hadn’t experienced any symptoms and had only missed a few classes. It was easy to get back in the swing of things.
Although isolation wasn’t ideal, the hotel was a good facility to have.
“The hotel will be used for the rest of the semester as a COVID option,” Lauren Pope, Fort Lewis’ Media Relations Strategist, said. “After the semester, the team will reevaluate the mitigation strategy for the future.”