David Yaffe-Bellany

When Luying Liu GRD ’21 noticed brown blotches on her bed sheets, she told herself not to panic.

“I was doing a lot of other stuff at the time and tried to get my mind off it,” Liu said.

But the blotches — dried blood from the tiny insect bites on her arms and back — kept reappearing. On March 31, Liu — who lives on the eighth floor of Harkness Hall, a 172-bedroom dorm complex for graduate and medical students located on Cedar Street near Yale-New Haven Hospital — contacted Yale Housing and the Office of Facilities to request an inspection. It was clear where the blotches had come from: a bedbug infestation, the sixth in Harkness Hall since October.

The Harkness Hall bedbug infestations, which at the moment have subsided, have generated fierce debate within the graduate and medical student community, fueled by the activism of angry residents who insist that housing officials have badly mishandled the problem. Two weeks ago, the brewing controversy forced the Medical School Admissions Office to relocate dozens of visiting students scheduled to stay in Harkness Hall for a three-day admitted students event. And late last week, in an email to building residents, Director of Graduate and Professional Student Housing George Longyear announced a revised bedbug protocol designed to prevent future infestations, after consultation with an expert in bedbug management. The new protocol calls for preemptive treatments as well as other measures designed to prevent future infestations.

But the new protocol — which some residents view as confirmation that the bedbug problem was left to fester in the early months of the first semester — has done little to pacify frustrated students. In more than a dozen interviews conducted over the last two weeks, Harkness Hall residents and medical student representatives detailed a timeline of inconsistent University response and a breakdown in communication that they say exacerbated the problem and created widespread confusion.

The flawed response by administrators has also raised questions about the competence of the housing and facilities team, just as the University prepares for the construction of a new graduate-student housing complex on Elm Street.

“There are systemic issues here that could end up being relevant for anybody living in on-campus housing,” Harkness Hall resident Kayla Isaacs MED ’19 said. “I believe Facilities is trying, but everything I’ve observed over the past few months suggests to me that they are in over their head.”

None of the administrators involved in managing the bedbug infestations agreed to comment for this story. Building superintendent Robert Young and housing manager Beth Bishop declined to answer questions. Longyear, Medical School Associate Dean of Student Affairs Nancy Angoff MPH ’81 MED ’90, and Paul Catalano, the area manager of central campus housing, did not respond to numerous phone calls and emails requesting comment.

In a statement, University spokeswoman Karen Peart said housing and facilities officials are still working to address the persistent bedbug problem.

“We will continue inspecting rooms and will immediately treat areas if needed,” Peart said. “Fortunately, we are not dealing with an infestation at this time, but it is certainly unsettling, and we are keeping students updated.”

“ITCHY AND WEIRD”

The first Harkness Hall infestation was reported on the eighth floor on Oct. 2. Another two eighth-floor infestations were identified on Oct. 5 in adjacent rooms directly facing the site of the first report.

“I have a distinct memory of getting into bed and feeling itchy and weird, and thinking, ‘Something is wrong with this bed,’” said the student who reported the first infestation, who asked to remain anonymous because of the stigma attached to bedbugs. “I was ignorant. Everybody is ignorant about it until it hits them personally.”

The two other residents whose rooms were infested in October declined to comment for this article.

It can take months to completely eliminate an infestation of bedbugs, parasitic insects that feed on human blood and cause uncomfortable rashes. The insects, which reproduce at high speed, thrive in the cracks and crevices underneath beds and between floors and walls. The Connecticut Coalition Against Bed Bugs, a government organization dedicated to teaching the public how to address infestations, describes bedbugs as “shy timid insects” that typically gravitate toward cluttered spaces.

In early October, CT Pest, the company to which the University outsources pest-control duties, used a heating device to push the insects out of the infested rooms — a response that was in line with University protocol. No other rooms on the eighth floor were heat-treated during the first round of infestations, residents said; the protocol used at the time states that the extent of treatment in adjacent areas is generally limited to “spot pesticide application.” The pest-control inspectors performed two follow-up inspections over the next month, according to the student who reported the first infestation. On Nov. 17, they informed the affected residents that the issue had been resolved.

Although that treatment strategy apparently succeeded in driving the bedbugs from the three infested rooms, it raised concerns among residents that the bedbugs would continue to spread to other parts of the floor.

“They could’ve done a better preemptive job at preventing an initial spread to other rooms,” said another eighth-floor resident, who asked to remain anonymous for privacy reasons. “They could’ve treated the other rooms on that floor, if not the ones above and below as well.”

Gail Ridge, a bedbug expert who worked with Yale’s housing and facilities team to devise the new protocol, said heat treatment causes the insects to flee infested rooms. But, she added, the brick walls of Harkness Hall most likely absorbed the heat waves intended to drive the bedbugs away, reducing the treatment’s efficacy.

On Feb. 24, three months after the first round of infestations, a resident in the same brightly lit stretch of eighth-floor hallway reported bedbugs in her room. In an interview with the News, the student, who also asked to remain anonymous, said that over the next week she received conflicting instructions from administrators that left her embarrassed and confused.

Young, who spearheaded the response to the bedbug issue, was out of town at the time of the infestation, according to the student.

“The people who initially helped us out were I don’t think as well-informed on how to respond,” said the student, who could not recall the names of the staff who inspected her room.

The inspectors, she said, permitted her to return clothes and other possessions to their usual places after her room was treated. But when Young returned, the student said, he ordered the belongings to be put in protective bags, in accordance with protocol.

“We initially had certain information on how to respond, and then when [Young] came into town, he gave us different information,” the student said.

And in addition to providing the student with inaccurate information, the original inspectors had also transported boxes of her possessions to a new room on the 10th floor — inadvertently carrying bedbugs to a previously unaffected part of the building.

Isaacs, who also lives on the eighth floor, called the decision to transport the belongings upstairs “gross incompetence” and a breach of University protocol.

Ridge, who has not discussed the episode with housing administrators, said the infested possessions should not have been moved to a different floor.

“It’s a learning opportunity,” Ridge said. “It’s not characteristic of their professionalism. Something happened that we don’t know about.”

“That’s what I noticed at Yale,” she added. “People are not communicating and cooperating.”

A BREAKDOWN IN COMMUNICATION

On Oct. 8, the day the exterminators heat-treated the first three infestations, the housing team posted two notices next to the eighth-floor elevator announcing that the affected rooms were being treated.

But some students on the eighth floor said they never saw the flyers, which were taken down shortly after the pest-control workers left the building. A week later, Isaacs sent Longyear an email asking him to keep residents better informed about the bedbug infestations. 

“Communication is extremely important, but we are careful not to incite unnecessary panic,” Longyear wrote in his reply, which Isaacs provided to the News. “As soon as we were made aware, the University protocol for bed bugs was put into place.”

On Oct. 16, Longyear sent a buildingwide email saying the bedbug problem had been resolved. But many eighth-floor residents interviewed said they did not notice the email, which was presented in a generic newsletter-style format rather than as an urgent formal letter to residents.

“You have to have communication so that everyone knows that it is an issue to be aware of,” Isaacs said. “Everyone needs to know who to contact, and that they should contact someone right away.”

She added that Longyear’s reassuring emails were “disingenuous,” as they falsely implied that the bedbug problem was entirely under control.

Thais Faggion Vinholo MED ’19, an eighth-floor resident, did not notice Longyear’s emails and said she did not hear about the bedbug infestations until February, when the fourth infestation was reported.

“The biggest frustration was that they didn’t tell us what was going on,” Faggion Vinholo said. “I realized that was happening only when I started to see some guys wearing some white clothes, and I was like, ‘Wait, what’s going on?’”

In the wake of each new report, housing administrators sent instructions to Harkness residents on how to prevent bedbug infestations. But the emails sometimes contained sloppy errors: One early message stated that bedbugs are three inches long, rather than three millimeters.

Liu, the resident who suffered the most recent infestation, said concerned students usually have to take the initiative to get detailed information from housing administrators.

“Sometimes they will tell you stuff, if you ask them,” she said. “Personally, I would appreciate it if they’re more open about this.”

Still, when Yale Housing held a town hall-style discussion in early March about the bedbug issue, only seven students attended, despite emails from administrators promising that a “leading expert in the area of bedbugs” would speak at the session.

The visiting expert was Ridge, who also met privately with the housing and facilities team to discuss revisions to the University’s bedbug protocol, which had not been updated since 2010. After consulting with Ridge, the housing administrators changed their treatment method, switching from heat treatment to a nontoxic silica dust-based pesticide.

“[The original protocol] was appropriate for the moment it was written, but things have evolved,” Ridge told the News. “Protocols should remain living documents, so that as research unfolds and experience becomes deeper in the University, those documents can be reviewed.”

On March 8, the housing and facilities team used silica dust to prophylactically treat every bedroom and common space in Harkness Hall, a preventative measure designed to stop the future spread of bedbugs. But the officials announced the preemptive treatment in a dormwide email just one day before the exterminators arrived, and several residents interviewed said they missed the alert.

Carolyn Chuang MED ’17 said she was surprised to enter her room and see chemicals sprayed across the floor.

“I came in one day, and it had already been done,” Chuang said. “It’d be nice if they could give us some notice.”

TO HOST OR NOT TO HOST?

Three weeks after the preemptive silica-dust treatment, Liu contacted Yale Housing to report the brown splotches on her sheets.

This sixth infestation came less than a week before 30 admitted medical students were scheduled to stay at Harkness Hall for Second Look weekend, an event-laden extravaganza designed to showcase the school’s appeal.

The Medical Student Council, which works alongside the admissions office to organize Second Look, lobbied Director of Admissions Richard Silverman and Assistant Director of Admissions Barbara Watts to relocate the students to a local hotel. Still, despite the new infestation, the admissions officers were initially reluctant to move the visitors off campus, according to student representatives involved in the discussions. Watts and Silverman did not respond to requests for comment.

But three days before Second Look, exterminators discovered live bedbugs under a floorboard in Liu’s room, and Watts and Silverman appeared to change their minds. In a late-night email to Harkness residents two days before students were due to arrive, MSC President Carrie Flynn MED ’23 confirmed that the visiting students would stay at a local hotel at the expense of the Medical School.

“Given the developing nature of this situation, [the students and admissions officers] have decided that it is best to provide our accepted students with lodging in a hotel rather than Harkness,” Flynn wrote in the email.

The admitted students stayed at La Quinta Inn and Suites, about two and a half miles from the center of campus. The medical school offered free Uber rides to the visitors staying at the hotel.

“It was actually nice to have our rooms cleaned and towels, toiletries and breakfast provided,” said George Bugarinovic, one of the admitted students who stayed at La Quinta. “Having a roommate caught me a bit off guard, but we became friends quickly.”

Walter Hsiang, an admitted medical student who attended Second Look but did not stay at La Quinta, said the admitted students he spoke to seemed unconcerned about the bedbug infestations, although some complained that the hotel was inconveniently located.

MOVING FORWARD

In an email last week to Harkness residents, Longyear announced that the University has finalized a revised bedbug-treatment protocol. The new guidelines, which can be found on Yale Housing’s website, call for infested rooms and all adjacent spaces to be treated with silica dust.

According to Ridge, the updated protocol probably would have prevented the bedbugs from spreading had it been applied to the first round of infestations in the fall.

“It was a problem that was not managed, either through oversight or lack of understanding,” she said.

The MSC met with Longyear Monday to suggest even more additions to the bedbug protocol, including new procedures for follow-up inspections and adjustments to the application method for the silica dust-based treatment.

“Mr. Longyear is going to follow up with Dr. Ridge on these questions and will adjust the protocol as needed,” Flynn wrote Thursday in an email to the medical school community. “[Longyear] has also confirmed that two fully trained, highly qualified bedbug sniffing dogs have been hired to determine if any bedbugs remain in the building.”

Meanwhile, a line of bulldozers began work two weeks ago on the construction of 82 new graduate-student dorms set to open on Elm Street in fall 2018. According to Isaacs, the bungled response to the Harkness Hall infestations should serve as impetus for more robust bedbug prevention strategies in the new housing units.

But the revised treatment procedures may not be enough on their own, students said, because they have not resolved the communication issues that left some residents unsure of how to prevent infestations.

The new protocol requires administrators to place bedbug interceptor traps — circular wells designed to catch the insects before they climb onto beds — under each leg of an infested bed. In his email announcing the new guidelines, Longyear said administrators have purchased the traps for any resident who wants them.

But it remains unclear whether building residents are even aware that the traps are available. Isaacs said she found boxes of them stored in the Harkness Hall mailroom. Three of five eighth-floor residents interviewed said they had never even heard of bedbug traps.

And many residents, even those living on the affected floors, remain misinformed about the scale of the bedbug problem.

Chuang, who lives down the hall from the site of the first infestations, said she thought there had been only three reports of bedbugs since October. She was surprised to hear that the number is in fact twice as high.

“Have there been that many?” she asked. “I didn’t know that. It’s a bit concerning.”

Yinyu Wu GRD ’21, who lives on the eighth floor, said that as far as she knows, only two rooms on the eighth floor have been infested.

“I did receive an email from Yale Housing that they have already stopped the problem of bedbugs,” she said.

  • ShadrachSmith

    At what point do heads roll for endangering student health? In management theory the first step is fire the person in charge. I am wide open to other theories 🙂

  • Anne Wilson

    Bed bugs are the worst. its so hard to find them and even harder to kill them. i wonder if a bed bug prevention was in effect if this would be such a big problem? my daughter is in college and i sent her sheets and all sorts of ways to prevent bed bugs. http://www.thermalstrike.com . she was teasing me about it but i’ll have her read this and then see what she thinks.