Immunocompromised student says Guelph's campus COVID-19 outbreak makes her 'kind of mad'
64 university students test positive after 'unsanctioned' residence parties
If Victoria Leaker's being honest, she wasn't going to go to the parties anyway.
"I'm not going to lie. As a physicist, I'm not very social to begin with," jokes the fourth-year student, studying theoretical physics at the University of Guelph.
A series of "unsanctioned" parties on Guelph's campus in mid-January led to a significant COVID-19 outbreak. 64 students have tested positive and around 100 are still isolating in residence. That's a problem for Leaker, who is immunocompromised and lives in residence too.
"Overall, I just feel kind of mad," she said. "There seems to be this kind of mindset amongst some people that you're on campus to have a good time and that makes me angry because it's a pandemic."
Leaker has ankylosing spondylitis, a rare form of arthritis that affects the spine. She's prone to pneumonia and has anxiety to top it off. If she were to catch COVID-19, she's at a greater risk of getting very sick.
"If you looked at me, you wouldn't know that I had chronic pain and back issues," she said.
"You're taking somebody else's life into your hands when you choose to make decisions like that and not taking into account the repercussions your actions could have."
Hardest part not going home
The campus outbreak seems to be cresting. It's only grown by a few positive cases the past few days. Of the 64 positive cases, Wellington-Dufferin Guelph Public Health now considers 53 "recovered."
Still, Leaker is being cautious; she's stressed but managing. She's stopped meeting with her residence study friend and goes for walks in a nearby forest, where she thinks her risk of catching the virus is pretty low.
Nero, her service dog, keeps her company with cuddles.
She doesn't know when she'll be able to go home next, as autoimmune disorders run in the family. Both her mom and grandfather have lupus.
"I wouldn't want to go home and risk spreading that to my family who's at risk," she said. "I think [that's] the hardest part."
Leaker has been Facetiming with her mom daily.
The school is "strongly encouraging" residence students to stay put during the February reading week and not go home. If they choose to, they'll have to self-isolate for 14 days when they return to campus.
University blames winter weather
The university gave its first interview to CBC News Tuesday since the outbreak began, explaining what went wrong.
Carrie Chassels, Guelph's vice provost of students affairs, continues to blame "reckless and unsanctioned" gatherings for causing the outbreak. She said all 64 cases could be traced back to the mid-January parties.
She praised residence staff, who are often students dealing directly with the outbreak. She said they were the first to respond to the parties, then calling campus police for backup. Chassels said no staff have tested positive so far.
She said parties have been happening on campus since September but not as many indoors. Unlike other Ontario universities, including Western, Waterloo and Laurier, Guelph did not have an outbreak until January.
"With the weather turning cold, students tried to gather indoors and it proved to be very unsafe."
A total of 290 additional students moved into residence at the start of the winter semester, a move some have criticized. It brings the total number in residence up to 840, a fraction of the nearly 5,000 that usually bunk on campus.
Chassels defended the move, explaining the fall cohort was "very, very small."
The investigation into the outbreak continues and Chassels said more discipline is coming.
Campus police have handed out 22 fines of $880 since Jan. 25, 12 linked to the mid-January parties. A total of 41 tickets of $120 have also been handed out.
"We have seen a significant increase in compliance," Chassels said.
"We expect that they will continue to."