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UVM Student Journalist Shares Firsthand Account Of Campus COVID-19 Quarantine

A photograph of Vermont Cynic journalist Ella Ruehsen in quarantine on the University of Vermont campus. Also an image of Ruehsen's story on the Vermont Cynic website.
Kate Vanni and the Vermont Cynic, courtesy
Vermont Cynic journalist Ella Ruehsen is photographed while quarantining on the University of Vermont campus. Her first-person account of isolating with the virus was published by student newspaper last week.

A reporter at the University of Vermont student newspaper The Vermont Cynic was covering the coronavirus on campus for more than a year when she got what any reporter craves: access to the inside story. But for this UVM student journalist, the inside story came courtesy of her own COVID-19 diagnosis.

VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with Ella Ruehsen, one of the Cynic’s assistant news editors, about her first-person account of being a student in quarantine at UVM. That story was published last week under the headline “Inside COVID Isolation At UVM: Reporter Recounts Surreal Stay With No Masks And Limited Supervision." A transcript of their conversation has been edited for clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: Can you give us a brief description of what that was like, first, getting the diagnosis, and then, what it was like to be in quarantine on campus?

Ella Ruehsen: When I got my diagnosis, and when I had to kind of up and move all of my things, one day into the quarantine building as a close contact, and then the very next day and the isolation building, it was a lot to take in and to process. And it was a very surreal stay in the isolation building. I could actually see, through the window of that building, my residence hall. So it kind of put into perspective like, wow, I'm kind of in a whole different realm right now.

Ella, we know that symptoms can vary for people. How hard did this hit you?

Luckily for me, it wasn't at all life-threatening. I don't think I ever even had a fever. But I definitely had some flu-like symptoms, with the body aches, fatigue and things like that. But I've been able to pretty much fully recover my health since then.

The story of [your] more than a week in quarantine, you [wrote about it] from the first-person perspective. And I found it interesting that the Cynic editor-in-chief [Sawyer Loftus] even wrote a disclaimer about the choice of doing so at the top of the article. Why did you and the paper decide to go this route in telling your story?

It was a very unusual decision. But the reason that we decided to take this route is because there was no getting around the fact that I, the reporter, got COVID-19. And that's how I had access to this kind of insider information. And so we felt that unusual circumstances called for unusual methods of storytelling, and that this was the way to be the most honest with our readers, to be honest about the perspective through which this information was being gathered.

A photograph of a van used to transport COVID positive students at UVM.
Credit Ella Ruehsen / Vermont Cynic, courtesy
Vermont Cynic, courtesy
A van used to transport COVID positive students is parked outside of UVM's Slade Hall.

One of the things you did in the article was to recount your experiences with a nurse at UVM named Dana Braunegg, and I'd like you to tell us a little bit about Dana and how she figured into the piece.

[She] was the student health services employee who was primarily responsible for overseeing things in all of [UVM’s] COVID-19 facilities during my stay. And so she was the person of authority who I had the most contact with. And she was the one who told all of the students in these facilities the rundown on what the rules are, how things are supposed to work. Of course, I needed to attribute the information to someone that was a trustworthy source who was a university official. And in this case, [she] was the person in that position. She was quoted a lot throughout the article for that reason.

Let me press you on that a little bit, because as I understand it, Dana Braunegg did not want to speak to you for the article. When you say you “quoted her extensively,” was that based on what you had heard from her, but without her permission?

Yeah. So basically, in the fall, I had reached out to her previously to see if she would be willing to do a formal interview about what it's like to be in isolation [at UVM]. And she was unresponsive to that email. She seemed to not want to speak with the press formally. And it seemed like if I were to identify myself as a member of the press and say, "I'm writing a story about this, can we talk?" She wouldn't have been inclined to do so and her answers would have changed.

And so, as a student who is also going through this really tough situation, who got COVID-19 during a pandemic, I was just as much entitled to the information she was giving [as] anyone else. I was learning things from her, as a student. She was telling me things, as a student in quarantine. Like, what the rules were, how things worked. And that's just not information that I think she willingly wanted to give to the press, or to the public. That was why we did things in that way.

Judging by some of the comments to the story online, there's been some strong feedback to the article and a lot of it surrounding the presentation of Dana Braunegg. What can you tell us about some of the feedback that you've received?

One person, in the comments, accused me of getting the virus on purpose. Other people, a lot of folks, were kind of coming to Dana's defense, as if I was out to get her when writing this piece. But I think that those interpretations weren't really grounded in the language of the story itself.

You know, COVID-19 is a really sensitive subject in a lot of different ways. And I think that, upon reading this story and hearing this information, people were angry. And that was the place that they felt that they could place that anger. But I was reporting on the facts. I was reporting on the conditions. If [Braunegg’s] working conditions aren't working, then that needs to be taken up with her employer, and not with me. I'm not the one creating those conditions. Dana isn't necessarily responsible, primarily, for anything that's slipping through the cracks of UVM’s COVID-19 plans. But the intent of the article was never to place blame on [Braunegg].

What did you see there about the realities of quarantining students on campus? Did it match with what you had been told by school administrators?

Quite frankly, I haven't been able to garner much information from school administrators about what it's like for students to be in quarantine. Which is why this [story] presented such a unique opportunity, and which is why we reported on it in such unconventional ways. Because the administration has seemingly been resistant to opening up about a lot of these details. So, I guess the interesting thing is that, yeah, there was a lot of information I never would have known had I not been in the position directly myself.

Since Ruehsen's reporting appeared in The Cynic, UVM has implemented new COVID-19 measures on campus. Starting in March, students are required to be tested every three days for the virus, instead of once a week, as previously required. The university has also increase penalties for violating its coronavirus protocols; except for a first missed test, all violations will now be reviewed for suspension.

When reached for comment on Ruehsen’s story, a statement from UVM spokesperson Enrique Corredera noted:

"We do treat students as adults, and we expect them to follow all the public health guidance. Based on the increased numbers of positives in the State of Vermont and in Burlington, we fully expected to see a higher number of positive cases this semester and yet our positivity rate remains well below the state's positivity rate. We continue to monitor the situation closely and we are making adjustments as needed. For instance, even though we have never reached capacity in our isolation and quarantine facilities, out of an abundance of caution we have taken action to further increase the number of rooms available ... In addition, we changed our procedures this semester to prevent students in isolation/quarantine from being able to access facilities with their CatCard, and students in isolation are now required to wear masks.”

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet Morning Edition host Mitch Wertlieb @mwertlieb.

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