Contact tracing and the classroom
Q&A with Rebecca Caldwell, director of Strategic Health Initiatives
As the number of COVID-19 cases has increased among the student body, questions have arisen about the contact tracing process as it pertains to faculty members. Rebecca Caldwell, director of Strategic Health Initiatives, discusses the university’s efforts in this area and what faculty members can expect to see as it relates to their students.
Most people on campus understand the importance of contact tracing during COVID-19, but they might not understand exactly what the university has in place to conduct it. Could you give a brief overview of the university’s efforts and capacity in this area?
We have a contact tracing team that is the equivalent of four full-time employees — 160 hours per week. That figure is based on a formula from Johns Hopkins University. There are up to 20 people who do the tracing, which takes place seven days a week, day and evening. We are adding additional tracers to the team to be even more efficient.
As the College of Pharmacy has rolled out its saliva-based surveillance testing, which often gives results the next morning, we have adjusted the hours of our tracers. When people wake up and get that result, they are usually very receptive to hearing from a contact tracer about what they need to do next.
As the caseload has risen, does the university have enough capacity to keep up?
As we have had a large number of cases, we have worked with DHEC to help in our tracing efforts. As numbers have declined somewhat in the community, DHEC has joined us to increase our capacity, particularly helping to trace our off-campus cases. We use the same training as DHEC for our contact tracers, and we pass information back and forth on a regular basis.
Based on what we have seen during the first couple of weeks back on campus, is there any reason to be concerned about transmission of the virus in classroom settings?
The classroom-based risk mitigation strategies are strong. Students are overwhelmingly practicing good risk mitigation in the classroom — they wear their masks and sit in their prearranged seats. It sometimes feels like the classroom is the safest place on campus; students and faculty are doing a good job of making the classroom a safe space.
We know the classroom has been overwhelmingly safe; we do not have any evidence that the classroom is somewhere the virus is being spread. It is more in social settings.
How will a faculty member know if a student has tested positive for COVID-19?
There are a couple of ways that faculty might hear about a student testing positive. There is a form available to students to ask for formal letters of notification to be sent to their faculty via the Ombuds offices. Some students may notify faculty directly; faculty also have the right to ask the student for formal notification via the Ombuds COVID-19 student report form process.
We had planned to give a courtesy notification to faculty members whenever a student in their class tests positive. Our ability to do that has been affected by the amount of cases. The first week we called every faculty member; the second week we emailed. This week, we have to focus our efforts on contacting infected students and their close contacts.
Nonetheless, faculty should know that if they have been deemed a close contact with a student, or a co-worker, we will contact them. And if we can slow things back down, we will continue those courtesy notifications. Still, they will often hear much faster from the student.
When a student tests positive, what does the contact tracing process look like?
Each student who discloses COVID-19 infection will be contacted by contact tracers to determine where they had been during the period 48 hours before their symptoms started and since they’ve been sick. If this includes coming in person to any class, the contact tracing team will examine whether there are individuals in the class who were within 4 feet of the infected individual for 15 minutes or more. Those individuals will need to be quarantined for 14 days from their last contact with the infected individuals. This is why it is key to work to maintain as much distance as possible between yourself and students.
There is a human desire to be around each other. What we need as humans and what we need to stop the virus are sometimes at odds.
What should faculty tell other members of the class when a student tests positive? How does the university balance an individual student’s privacy versus the need for all members of our community to remain safe?
Do not share the identity or any health information about individual students.
If the student has been to class, you can tell the class that there has been an infected class member and some individuals will be moving to online participation for a period of time for the safety of the group. You can assure them that the students who meet the criteria to be quarantined have been contacted. The members in your class do not need to be tested due to someone in the class being positive, only if they are deemed close contacts would any intervention be needed. COVID typically takes 3-5 days to be detected in an individual after being exposed and infected by a known positive person.
If an individual student has questions about whether they should quarantine or believe that they have been in close contact, have them reach out to the COVID Phone Bank (803-576-8511). Do not tell individuals to quarantine without further guidance.
What criteria determine whether a faculty or staff member will be contacted by a contact tracer when a student tests positive? What would the reason be for not contacting a faculty member?
We have not had a case where classroom activity caused any quarantines of close contacts. If a faculty member is determined to be a close contact of an infected student, they will hear from a contact tracer.
It’s important for faculty members to keep in mind that just because a student is
infected, it doesn’t mean they were in your class during their infectious period.
Also, even if they were in the classroom during that period, faculty members and other
students should be safe as long as everyone has been practicing risk mitigation strategies.
If the student was not in their class during their infectious period, we will not
reach out. At the current level of cases, our capacity to reach out with courtesy
notifications to faculty who had a COVID positive case attend their class has been
If you have questions or concerns that there is a risk, please contact us at the COVID Phone Bank (803-576-8511) to discuss the concern further.
We had planned to give a courtesy notification to faculty members whenever a student in their class tests positive. Our ability to do that has been affected by the amount of cases.
Is there anything proactive a faculty member should do if they learn of a student in their class testing positive? Should that student be encouraged to contact Student Health Services — or will SHS already have that information?
If the student tested off-campus, we encourage them to update their test results with us and to reach out to us with any medical questions or concerns. If you get a hint that they live in a dorm and are not on our radar screen as having tested positive, please ask them to contact Student Health Services right away. You can call us at the COVID Phone Bank to discuss that situation.
As students have returned to campus and in-person teaching has begun, what lessons are we learning to help mitigate the spread of the virus?
We are learning more about how people are reacting to practicing risk mitigation strategies and how they are reacting to testing. We are becoming more efficient.
We know the classroom has been overwhelmingly safe; we do not have any evidence that the classroom is somewhere the virus is being spread. It is more in social settings. There is a human desire to be around each other. What we need as humans and what we need to stop the virus are sometimes at odds.
Many of our students are doing everything they can and are taking themselves out of circulation if they become symptomatic. Lots of students are very serious about making themselves and each other safe. Most are making good choices. We know what the risk mitigation strategies are; some are great at it, and some are not. But the more risk mitigation we use, the fewer cases we will have.
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