Experts have emphasized the need for widespread testing and contact tracing in order to safely reopen universities. But some at the University of Michigan are concerned about whether contact tracing on campus and surveillance testing efforts will be able to stem outbreaks before they occur.
Angela Beck, associate dean in the School of Public Health and faculty adviser of Contact Tracing Corps, worked with the University over the summer to develop a program for contact tracing on campus. The CTC is composed of volunteers who reach out to students who test positive for the virus and notify their close contacts of the University’s quarantine protocol. Contact tracing is vital to preventing the virus from causing an outbreak on campus, Beck said.
“I think this program is really helpful to the University’s containment response for COVID-19,” Beck said. “Key to keeping the virus contained and keeping our campus as safe as possible is to identify who is a positive case and who’s been exposed to a positive case as quickly as they can and isolate them from the rest of the population so that we can really stop that transmission.”
The Washtenaw County Health Department has an agreement with the University’s Environment, Health & Safety Department to conduct contact tracing under the jurisdiction of Washtenaw County, a responsibility the health department “deputizes” the University volunteers to undertake, according to Communications and Health Promotions Administrator Susan Ringler-Cerniglia. Danielle Sheen, executive director of EHS said the department is responsible for “case investigation and contact tracing” as part of their legal agreement with WCHD.
CTC volunteers, ranging from graduate students to Public Health undergraduates, undergo training modules to learn how to best work with the patients. Beck said the partnership between EHS and the WCHD has been beneficial in working with volunteers.
“That legal agreement between EHS and Washtenaw County is partly what makes this possible,” Beck said. “Not every university has this type of legal agreement with the county, so I think we’re able to help in a way, and provide some students learning experiences in a way that I think other universities probably can’t. So that’s also a reason why moving in this direction seems like a possibility.”
Business freshman Audrey Thedford learned she came into contact with someone who had tested positive for COVID-19 after receiving a call from a contact tracer. She said she was confused about why she was sent to quarantine housing and wished her contact tracer had given her more information.
“My contact tracer was really nice, but when he first contacted me, I was freaked out,” Thedford said. “I wish they could have told me who I came in contact with … I emailed (CTC) about my concerns and at one point, he just stopped responding to me about that specific issue but responded to me about another issue, so I just kinda felt swept under the rug.”
LSA senior Libby Kirk learned she had interacted with someone who tested positive for COVID-19 after the person reached out to her directly. A day later, CTC called her. She quarantined last week.
Though the contact tracing program was helpful in her situation, Kirk said it was also imperative for the person who tested positive to inform her so she could get tested right away.
“In general, I think what has been more helpful is the person who tested positive contacting us right away,” Kirk said. “Because if I did have it, I wouldn’t have known for a whole day until they contact traced me, so I think the most helpful thing has been the person contacting me themselves.”
Kirk also said one of the program’s flaws is that it relies on student accountability.
“I think in some ways it is (working),” Kirk said. “But in other ways, it’s relying on students to be accountable for their actions, which I don’t think we can really count on everybody for that.”
Public Health professor Emily Martin, who runs the COVID-19 sampling and tracking program, spoke at the University Board of Regents meeting Thursday afternoon and shared data from the first wave of results. Martin told The Michigan Daily how multiple negative tests could change within 14 days and, if students are ordered to quarantine, they must do it for the full two weeks.
“You can give me 100 negative tests while you’re in quarantine and you still have to stay in quarantine because you could turn positive at any point during that time frame,” Martin said. “So, unfortunately, there have been some people who have suggested that, ‘What if we use tests earlier in quarantine to try to release people?’ It doesn’t (work like that) … I think that this is still the safest way to do that process.”
Thedford said she is currently quarantined at her permanent residence after spending a week at Northwood apartments. Thedford said she was concerned about getting the virus from residents who tested positive after encountering these students outside of her quarantine room.
“I couldn’t stand Northwood anymore,” Thedford said. “It’s just crazy there and more kids who test positive are literally right next to you. For my safety, I thought it was best if I just went home cause I have the luxury of living an hour away.”
The conditions at the University’s quarantine housing have been the subject of numerous complaints — and a viral Tik Tok — by students sent to isolate there. Residents have voiced concerns about a lack of sanitation, the low quality of the meal delivery service and limited communication between them and the University. In response to the criticism, the University created a new job to oversee students and conditions in quarantine housing.
Martin said while the first set of data to come from surveillance testing recorded zero positive tests, she would “love to get as many people signed up as possible” to collect more data from students.
Public Health graduate student Peter DeJonge works with Martin in the surveillance testing program. DeJonge also encouraged students to sign up for the program, saying it benefits the community.
“I would encourage people to sign up,” DeJonge said. “Everyone will eventually be selected to come in and collect the self swab. We give their results back pretty quickly. It contributes to the overall well-being of campus and there’s very little hassle to make an appointment.”
Thedford brought up concerns about the newly reinstated football season affecting testing and contact tracing, saying tailgates could negatively impact the progress of the CTC.
“If a positive person goes to a tailgate, there’s no point (in contact tracing),” Thedford said. “It’s just not effective because if a kid has COVID, they’re only going to say the five close friends that they know of and everyone else is just going to walk freely. I think contact tracing is going to have a big issue coming up and we’re going to see an influx of people entering Northwood. It’s just going to keep getting worse and worse.”
“So we watch what’s going on at doctors’ offices, we watch what’s going on at the hospitals, we watch what people are reporting in the community,” Martin said. “But we also kind of go out and do targeted testing to figure out if influenza is here yet. Is it going? Is it getting higher? And that gives us an extra piece of information to help us tailor how we’re responding (to the virus).”
DeJonge said surveillance testing is important among college students because many virus carriers are asymptomatic.
“With any communicable disease or something that people can spread from person to person, it’s important for the community to know what’s out there,” DeJonge said. “So the surveillance that we do is important to just recognize how many people are out there, we don’t know about and wouldn’t know about because they never will have symptoms.”
Racial disparities persist in the pandemic’s impact, with Black and Hispanic Americans bearing the brunt of the virus. Martin said some marginalized communities have been negatively affected by the medical system and may be unwilling to participate in these surveillance programs.
“I think that we need to be mindful of both sides of the people that would feel safer with mandatory testing,” Martin said. “I think we need to acknowledge that there are communities of people that both have reasons that they don’t want to participate in mandatory testing, but then also may have had experiences with the medical system and public health surveillance systems that may make them uncomfortable. With that kind of mandate, I think we need to acknowledge that and also as part of the conversation.”
Daily Staff Reporter Jasmin Lee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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