Azul Kothari, a junior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is seen in front of Sellery Residence Hall, where he lives and works a house fellow, on Feb. 27, 2021. Credit: Will Cioci / Wisconsin Watch
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Outbreak Wisconsin chronicles people’s journeys through the coronavirus crisis, exposes failing systems and explores solutions.

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Listen to Azul Kothari’s first audio diary, produced by Bridgit Bowden for WPR.

Azul Kothari felt sure he would catch COVID-19 during the fall semester as infections surged at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. At the peak of last year’s outbreak, the university reported a weekly average of infections of more than 10% of students tested. 

Kothari, a third-year student from Piedmont, California, is often around other students in his work as a house fellow — what other campuses might call a resident assistant — in Sellery Residence Hall on campus.

“I just thought I would get it through community spread at some point,” he said. “I thought it was pretty inevitable.”

Kothari, a double major in material science engineering and biochemistry, watched as a stream of newly infected students moved into temporary quarantine or isolation housing. 

“Every day, you would see people turning their keys in to the front desk,” he said.

Somehow, he avoided an infection in the fall. In January, he received his first vaccine dose in California — an extra dose that would have been discarded. He hopes the campus will be safer for everyone this spring as the university tries new tactics to prevent another COVID-19 surge. Those include strict testing protocols. 

The university this semester is requiring undergraduates living on or near campus to take coronavirus tests twice each week. Undergraduates who live further away from campus are tested every 4 days. Graduate students and employees must get a weekly test to gain access to campus spaces. 

A smartphone application called Safer Badgers helps students and staff coordinate test scheduling, track results and gain admission to campus buildings and shared spaces. 

The university also expanded its testing capacity by 70,000 tests per week by adding a saliva-based testing program for most students, faculty and staff. Some on campus initially criticized the system during a rocky rollout

“Saliva testing is something that feels really weird to do,” Kothari said. “It’s literally the grossest thing.”

People arriving at testing facilities receive a small vial, funnel and instructions to pool their drool beneath their tongues. Lining up along the edge of the room —”essentially urinal-style” — test recipients drool through the funnel into the vial, Kothari said.

“You’re not allowed to spit,” he said. Nor should someone eat or drink before a test, which can lead to a sample being rejected. Rejections are a “nuisance” for students who may lose access to buildings by failing to show a negative test result, Kothari said.  

— Aside from the campus’ closure in spring 2020 when COVID-19 first arrived in Wisconsin, Kothari says he has experienced few major life disruptions during the pandemic.  

In fact, he said completing that semester virtually while spending time at home with family was comfortable.

“I don’t think it’s affected my life to the degree that it’s affected other people’s lives, I mean people have lost jobs, people have lost loved ones,” he said. “I’ve been very fortunate.”

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Bridgit Bowden / Wisconsin Public Radio

Bridgit Bowden is the special projects reporter at Wisconsin Public Radio. Previously, she was the Mike Simonson Memorial Investigative Reporting Fellow at WisconsinWatch.