What It’s Like to Be Quarantined on a College Campus

A UCLA student talks about measles exposure at his school, his time in isolation from other students, and making a TikTok video to pass the time.

A student enters Franz Hall at the University of California at Los Angeles. Administrators identified Franz Hall as a site of possible measles exposure after an infected student attended class there. (Jae C. Hong / AP)

Duoduo “Danny” Ying didn’t pay much attention to the UCLA chancellor’s school-wide memo that arrived in his email inbox last Wednesday. The note, also published on the school’s website, simply seemed to reiterate what he already knew: An unnamed student at the University of California at Los Angeles “had contracted the measles,” the chancellor wrote. Los Angeles County is one of several regions across the United States currently experiencing an outbreak of measles. The number of cases in the country is the highest it’s been since 2000, when the disease was declared eliminated in the United States.

The unnamed UCLA student had, on three separate days a few weeks prior, attended classes while sick in two buildings on the south side of campus. Ying wasn’t overly worried about the incident—he knew he had gotten the measles vaccine.

The university, however, didn’t know that. Ying, 19, is a sophomore majoring in economics and business who, like most underclassmen, lives on “The Hill,” a student-housing village on the western side of campus. He is also enrolled in the same Econ 103 course, and was sitting in the same lecture hall, as his unknown classmate who brought the virus to campus, according to an alert he received early last week via the university’s student-health portal. In retrospect, Ying acknowledges that he must have glossed over a subsequent message from the Ashe Center, the student-health hub, that read, in part, “It appears that you may not have received the measles vaccine.”

Alia wong / the atlantic / university of california at los angeles

While the university had quickly confirmed measles immunity for most of the 500 or so people who’d somehow come into contact with the student carrier, it failed to locate the necessary records for 119 students as well as several staff members. Responding to an initial request for comment, a UCLA spokesman directed me to statements and information posted on the university’s website; he subsequently declined to elaborate.

For most of the 100-plus individuals quarantined at UCLA, record-keeping snafus—not vaccine avoidance—were likely to blame. University of California institutions only recently adopted a policy requiring incoming students to prove vaccination against measles. Only as of fall 2019 are all incoming students at UCLA subject to the requirement. For another thing, health records can be spotty, especially for people who had, say, an unstable or transitory upbringing, who were vaccinated in other countries, or who lack consistent access to health care.

Ying received a call from the Ashe Center around 4 p.m. the Wednesday the chancellor’s memo went out, instructing him to pack up his belongings and show up at Bradley Hall, an administrative building on the fringes of the student village, by 5 p.m. He was now under quarantine, per a legally binding order from the Los Angeles County public-health department.

“The Ashe Center sent a warning to students, like a week ago, from the Ashe portal, saying, ‘Hey, there’s this kid in these two [lecture] halls called Franz and Boelter,’” Ying recalls. “Then it says, ‘If you’re in those halls, please be aware.’ I didn’t think much about it. But after that, I received another email, and then the phone call.” Before he knew it, he was rushing to pack up his “shower stuff” and enough “essentials” to last him a couple of nights so he could make it there on time. “I was pretty shocked [when I got the call],” Ying says. “I was about to hit the gym—quarantine just messed up my schedule.”

UCLA’s quarantine expired once the clock struck midnight on Tuesday, in accordance with the county’s public-health protocols. Elsewhere in Los Angeles County, however, the measles outbreak is still affecting higher education. More than 600 students, employees, and visitors at California State University at Los Angeles were ordered into isolation last Thursday, 70 of whom remained quarantined at least as of Tuesday. According to a university spokesperson, those are the most up-to-date figures available.

Courtesy of duoduo ying

One student told me he was released within 30 minutes of his arrival. When we spoke last Friday, he was still incredulous that he’d been flagged for quarantine in the first place: He never had a doubt he’d been vaccinated—plus, he always sits at the very back of Econ 103.

Ying’s stay lasted only a few hours. After he checked in with Ashe Center workers at a table in Bradley Hall, he was assigned to one of four gender-segregated rooms. Once he took his blood test to determine his immunity—the results of which wouldn’t be ready until at least the next day—“there was nothing to do … but just sit there,” Ying recalls. “People weren’t socializing.” The Ashe Center had stipulated that anyone who wasn’t cleared by 8 p.m. that day had to stay overnight. Ying had been vaccinated in China—where he spent much of his childhood and where his parents currently live—so he wasn’t optimistic that he’d be able to get his records in time to escape before curfew.

Some people around him were watching the Rockets-Jazz game while sitting on the hard mattresses provided. Others were eating. There was plenty of food: “pizza, salad, Indian—like naan and all the other stuff—pastries, soda, and everything,” says Ying. He and others were also able to keep in touch with people on the outside—they were free to bring cellphones and laptops into quarantine. Ying used his phone to get in touch with family members and ask them to look for his vaccination records, and to let his UCLA friends know he was fine.

“Before, 10 or 20 years ago, when someone was in quarantine, it was kind of hard to get hold of them,” he says. This time, “people would be texting me and I would update them on what’s happening—especially my roommates. They were like, ‘Hey, any updates? What’s going on?’ And we constantly kept in contact, so there was no aspect of Oh, is he going to be okay?

Ying also used his phone to lighten the mood and “make the best of the situation,” he says, by making a TikTok video of his quarantine experience. Two of Ying’s buddies—twin brothers who are also in the Econ 103 class—wound up in quarantine, too, and they joined in, tackling each other with hard mattresses and shotgunning cans of Sprite. “We felt like, since it’s boring, why don’t we just make a video to make it seem lit?” Ying says.

Shortly before the 8 p.m. cutoff, Ying’s relative sent him his records, and he was cleared to leave. He would not have to sleep on a hard mattress that night. But he ended up sticking around until 9 p.m. anyway.

Why? “I was still in the process of making that video, so I stayed,” Ying reasoned. “I thought it was worth it.”