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'Emotional roller coaster': 67 students receive incorrect notifications of positive COVID-19 tests

Penn Pavilion.
Penn Pavilion.

Over 60 students received erroneous messages Saturday evening notifying them that they had tested positive for COVID-19. 

Around 7 p.m., first-year Caroline Howard and seniors Mona Tong and Ari Bechtel received text and email notifications that they had tested positive for COVID-19 and should begin isolating in their residence immediately. Nearly two hours later, all three got emails saying that their entry tests were negative and they were free to leave sequester. 

At around 11 p.m., the students received an email from Duke Notify informing them that the initial message they received was in error and they could stop sequestering. 

"We are happy to let you know that you are indeed cleared to leave sequester—there was an issue that accidentally marked your test as positive. We apologize for any issues this caused. We have worked with Student Health on this and they are aware of your correct state," the email read. 

Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations, wrote in an email to The Chronicle that 67 students received incorrect notifications of positive tests due to a data processing issue.

"As soon as the error was discovered, each student was immediately notified and no further action is needed on their part. We regret the inconvenience and appreciated the students’ patience and understanding," Schoenfeld wrote.

Howard's roommate had already arrived on campus, so she went to the dorm room of a friend who had also received notification of a positive test that later turned out to be an error. 

All three students said that they initially believed the second message saying they were free to leave sequester was an error, and that they really had tested positive for COVID-19. 

After receiving the second message, Tong called Student Health and spoke to a nurse who instructed her to try her best to isolate from others. "I don't think the nurse really knew what was going either, so I just assumed that I was positive at that point," Tong said. 

While the students were relieved to learn that they did not have COVID-19 and wouldn't need to isolate all week, Tong said that she was frustrated at the lack of clarity and organization on Duke's part. 

"I was sent on this emotional roller coaster for the past four hours for absolutely no reason, but I guess it's better than actually having COVID-19," Tong said. 

Howard and Bechtel said that upon being notified of their positive tests, they immediately texted everyone they had been in contact with recently. When they learned of the error, they had to circle back and let everyone know that they were not actually infected. 

"It was kind of a lot. Very busy couple of hours," Howard said.

Bechtel said that he wasn't frustrated with Duke, but he thinks that the testing situation is "a little bit bizarre, given that we're all vaccinated and boosted. Most people are not having symptoms, but the next few weeks of their lives are just kind of determined by these text messages."

After receiving the email notifying her that an error had been made, Tong emailed the Pandemic Support Unit to confirm that she did not have COVID-19. As of 1:30 p.m. on Sunday afternoon, she had not received a response. 

"I don't really know what's real at this point," Tong said.

Editor’s Note: Mona Tong is the director of diversity, equity and inclusion analytics for The Chronicle and was the news editor of The Chronicle’s 116th volume.

Anna Zolotor

Anna Zolotor is a Trinity senior and recruitment chair for The Chronicle's 118th volume. She was previously news editor for Volume 117.


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