You could be quarantined in your dorm for reporting your vaccine side effects

With no apparent university policy on post-vaccination symptoms, responding honestly to the Daily Screener could get you quarantined.

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Ryan Walker

NYU’s policy of filling out the Daily Screener to get access to NYU buildings has flaws when it comes to post-vaccination symptoms. Post-vaccination symptoms can cause people to feel ill, unrelated to the COVID-19 symptoms, so there is hesitation in responding honestly to the Daily Screener in fear of an unnecessary quarantine. (Staff Photo by Ryan Walker)

By Alex Tey, Copy Chief

I don’t socialize indoors, I wear one mask outside and two inside, and the riskiest thing I do is ride the subway about twice a week, an activity that is safer than eating inside a restaurant. A couple weeks ago, my weekly binx test had just come back negative and I didn’t have any symptoms. I was about as sure as someone could be that they didn’t have COVID-19. But after getting vaccinated, indicating my side effects on the Daily Screener caused me to be quarantined in my dorm.

I got my shot (single-dose Johnson & Johnson flavor) at the Ford Foundation on the afternoon of Friday, April 9, and at first only had an initial soreness that faded over the course of the 15-minute observation period. Anticipating strong side effects from the single-shot vaccine, I went to stay at my partner’s apartment in Brooklyn. Around 9 p.m., I started to have a mild headache, and I fell asleep about an hour later.

I woke up feeling sore and feverish a couple times throughout the night, and took my temperature around 4 a.m. I had a mild fever of 101 degrees, along with a stronger headache and some nausea. After taking a couple of painkillers, I dozed off again.

By the morning, I felt better, though still a little off; by Sunday, I was back to normal, apart from some arm soreness. I had basically experienced almost all of the side effects listed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and they had run their course in the expected timeframe.

On Monday I decided to pick up some food from a NYU dining hall, requiring me to fill out the Daily Screener, and I was faced with questions that I wasn’t sure how to answer. Yes, my temperature had been above 100.4 degrees and I’d had body aches, a headache and nausea —  but I was pretty sure I knew why, and it wasn’t because I had COVID. After all, the symptoms of the real virus don’t suddenly appear hours after vaccination and disappear the next day. 

Nevertheless, I answered honestly and was met with the bright red “fail” screen. Knowing that I shouldn’t be considered contagious, I explained the screener result and my situation to the public safety officer at the desk. He only asked if my NYUCard was still working. I tapped it at the gate, it worked, and I was waved through.

By the time I got back to my dorm, though, my card had been successfully disabled. After the public safety officer there let me in, the RA on duty told me that the same thing had happened to her friend. She said that the university handled all reports of fevers the same way, vaccine or not, and that I would just have to quarantine and get tested the next day. The phone call I received from a nurse with the NYU COVID-19 Prevention & Response Team confirmed that information. So I went up to my room to eat my food and wonder why I had to quarantine for vaccination symptoms.

On Tuesday I went to the special Cooper Square test site to take two COVID tests. The rapid test came back negative, and the normal test came back negative the next day, ending my unexpected but mercifully brief quarantine. Until then, though, I didn’t know how long it would last.

I also had a lot of questions about why I had to quarantine — wasn’t it obvious that my symptoms were just from the vaccine? Is NYU’s plan to quarantine every student who reports vaccine side effects on the screener? Is there a plan at all?

With around half of respondents to the CDC’s v-safe tool reporting post-vaccination symptoms like fatigue, headache and fever that would result in a “fail” on the NYU screener, it looks like half of NYU’s students will at some point find themselves in the same situation I was in.

I found no answers on NYU’s page for vaccine questions and support, so I sent an email that day to Dr. Carlo Ciotoli, executive lead of NYU’s CPRT. He responded the following Sunday, apologizing for the delay. He assured me that he would have an answer by the next day after checking with his team about changes to the screener. On Wednesday, I got a response.

Ciotoli said that the similarity between vaccine side effects and COVID symptoms is cause for caution, though the side effects themselves do not mean that the vaccinated person is infected or contagious.

“Given that post-vaccination symptoms can be similar to those symptoms associated with COVID-19 infection, we continue to encourage anyone who is feeling unwell to stay home,” Ciotoli wrote, though he did not address mandatory quarantine in his message. 

It seems likely, though, that students will lie about vaccine-related symptoms to avoid quarantining, a possibility that I suggested to Ciotoli.

“Individuals should answer the Daily Screener honestly,” he wrote. “If the responses result in a “fail” status on the Daily Screener, a member of the NYU COVID-19 Prevention & Response Team will reach to the student or employee to assess their specific situation, including accounting for any recent vaccination history.”

In my case, “accounting for any recent vaccination history” more or less amounted to acknowledging that I had just been vaccinated, but still treating me the same way they would as if I hadn’t. 

He also mentioned that the language in the Daily Screener was recently updated with this issue in mind. The only change, though, seems to have been phrases tacked on like “even if you are vaccinated,” “vaccinated or not” and “regardless of your vaccination status” onto the questions. These new questions only take recent vaccination history into account insofar as they explicitly disregard it.

I asked him on Thursday what the team was doing to account for vaccination history but got no response by press time.

For now, then, it still seems like the path of least resistance — if you aren’t feeling particularly scrupulous, that is — is to just refrain from reporting symptoms on the screener. The thought of simply lying had definitely crossed my mind.

“I know my symptoms were just from the vaccine, and they’re gone now anyway,” I had thought. “They’re really just asking if I have COVID, right?” (They weren’t, apparently.) “It wouldn’t be too bad to just say I didn’t have any symptoms at all.”

I ended up answering honestly, in part because I wanted to trust the process and in part because I wanted to see if the CPRT would spare me from quarantining because of the near-certain vaccine-related origin of my symptoms. They did not.

Had I needed a second dose and suffered similar side effects from that one, I’m not sure if it would have been as easy to be honest the second time. In the end, though, I can only endorse the official recommendation: act out of caution, treat your vaccine side effects as you would any other symptoms and report them honestly to the screener.

My experience ended up being relatively painless anyway — my test results came back quickly, so my quarantine lasted less than 48 hours, and the Grubhub credit I was allotted lasted much longer.

As the NYU community continues to get vaccinated, more students will be faced with the same decision I was. For some, the prospect of quarantining for vaccine-related symptoms and the absence of information from the university may be enough to convince them to simply lie.

Email Alex Tey at [email protected]