New COVID-19 policies have some students couch surfing

Mica Rosales (sophomore) and Sean Vargas (sophomore) sporting masks in the Mary Norton Clapp Library at Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA. Sept. 6, 2023. Sara Hamid/The Occidental

With the start of the Fall semester, COVID-19 has followed the community’s return to campus. Among those to become infected was President Harry J. Elam, who tested positive with the virus Aug. 24 — just five days before the official start of classes. Despite a persistent spread of COVID-19 on campus, Occidental announced an updated policy Aug. 28 that details isolating in one’s own room and a shortened isolation period of five days. As of Aug. 28, Occidental has also adopted LA County’s guidelines requiring those who test positive or who are close contacts to wear a mask for a full 10 days.

Devon Sakamoto, Assistant Dean of Students at Emmons Wellness Center, said via email that there were 54 positive cases the week of Aug. 28–Sept. 1. According to Sakamoto, this number includes people who reported positive results to on either Aug. 26 or 27, before the first week of classes. Sakamoto said she expected a spike in COVID-19 cases as thousands of people returned to campus.

“I am in regular communication with Dr. Kim Shriner, Oxy’s medical consultant and an infectious disease expert,” Sakamoto said via email. “Dr. Shriner works with Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena and gave us the heads-up about the local rise in cases ahead of time, so we knew Oxy would see an increase as well.”

Devon Sakamoto, Assistant Dean of Students for Emmons Wellness, photographed inside of her office in Emmons Wellness Center at Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA. Sept. 7, 2023. Sara Hamid/The Occidental

Sakamoto said that Occidental runs all of its protocols concerning COVID-19 by Dr. Shriner.

Despite the rise in cases, Emmons loosened their COVID-19 isolation policies for the Fall semester. Occidental has adopted LA County’s Department of Public Health’s recommendation of isolating for five days after testing positive, under the condition that one is fever-free for 24 hours and has mild or improving symptoms.

According to Sakamoto, Occidental has shifted to an “Isolate-In-Place model” for students who have been infected with COVID-19. This means most students are able to isolate in their own rooms instead of moving to a new one — the exception being immunocompromised students, for whom Residential Education and Housing Services (REHS) has set aside emergency isolation rooms. Sakamoto said that whether or not a student qualifies as immunocompromised is determined by the medical staff at Emmons.

Previously, students infected with COVID-19 were immediately moved to isolation dorms throughout campus, according to the policy that was active starting Aug. 4, 2022.

“Oxy is no longer moving COVID-positive students into isolation rooms, in part to minimize the physical and emotional impact that moving has on the student who is already feeling ill, and in part to begin managing COVID as we do other respiratory illnesses and communicable diseases,” Sakamoto said.

Emmons has been responding well to the influx of COVID-19 cases, according to Sakamoto.

“The COVID Operations and Emmons Medical Teams have been doing a great job keeping up with requests for symptomatic and exposure-based testing,” Sakamoto said.

Contents of the “goodie bags” provided for students with COVID-19 in Emmons Wellness Center at Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA. Sept. 7, 2023. Sara Hamid/The Occidental

Feedback from students has been less positive. Cate Sloat (sophomore) said she feels frustrated with the new policies. Sloat tested positive for COVID-19 Aug. 31. Her roommate, who is immunocompromised, was relocated for isolation while Sloat remained in her room.

“I didn’t go into the isolation room; my roommate had to,” Sloat said.

Sloat said that when she went to Emmons, the staff told her she was negative, even though she had previously tested positive with an at-home test that morning. Later that evening, Sloat said she tested again with an at-home kit, this time, with a clear positive result.

Sloat said she that these issues have caused her to have mixed feelings about the policy changes.

“Obviously, I felt bad that my roommate was the one that had to go,” Sloat said. “I didn’t leave on the fifth day because even though my symptoms were improving, I felt like [they] hadn’t improved enough for me to leave.”

Katie Patton (first year) started isolating Aug. 26 and completed isolation Aug. 31.

“One thing that stressed me out about the new policies is that I didn’t know what to do with my roommate,” Patton said. “It was better for me, mentally, because I had all my stuff there… but my roommate pretty much lived on people’s floors.”

Katie Patton (first year) photographed at Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA. Sept. 8, 2023. Sara Hamid/The Occidental

Emmons had told Patton that in order for her roommate to continue to sleep in the same room, Patton would have to wear a mask at all times. Patton said that in the end, her roommate decided to remove herself to avoid getting sick.

“She was almost couch surfing,” Patton said. “I wish there was a room that she could have gone to. I just felt bad about having to kick her out.”

Sloat said that she knows that COVID-19 will spread quickly on campus.

Your roommate gets COVID-19. You’re living in your room. You’re gonna get it. It’s pretty basic,” Sloat said.

Contact Michelle Teh at

Correction Sept. 14, 2023, 8:10 p.m.: This article was updated to report that the total number of positive cases during the first week of school includes people who reported positive results to  on either Aug. 26 or 27.


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