How contact tracing limits the spread on campus

By Colton Williams

In its effort to combat spread of the coronavirus on the Domain, the University has implemented a system of contact tracing. Coupled with testing, social distancing, masking, and other procedures, contact tracing helps to identify outbreaks before they happen and limit the spread of disease.

“In general,” said Mariel Gingrich, public health communications officer, “it involves notifying people who have an infectious disease, and asking them to identify their contacts (people who may have been exposed). By asking infected people to isolate and exposed people to quarantine, we disrupt the cycle of disease transmission.”

At Sewanee, the process of contact tracing unfolds in several steps. First, Gingrich and public health medical officer Dr. Mary Heath are informed that a lab sample has detectable levels of the virus. From there, the person with the positive sample is contacted, and then is interviewed about their potential exposures.

“This includes anyone they have had close contact with—i.e., within 6 feet, for greater than 15 minutes, unmasked—within the past week,” Gingrich said. “This could include roommates, friends, teammates. After we identify all who have been exposed, we reach out by phone to those individuals who may need to quarantine. We do not disclose the name of the positive person they were exposed to—though, the positive person is free to identify themselves if they wish.”

At this point in the process, positive cases are asked to isolate either at their home or at St. Mary’s. Contacts of the positive case are asked to quarantine for 14 days dating from their last exposure to the infected individual. 

Originally, contacts who lived within five hours were expected to complete their quarantine at their homes. Now, that policy is more flexible.

“At the beginning we were saying people within five hours can plan on going home. If it gets to the point where we have to quarantine lots more people we may have to go back to that, but for now we have places for people to stay,” Gingrich said.

In any public health crisis that necessitates contact tracing, there is always a worry that people will not be forthcoming in their contacts, though Gingrich said that,“For the most part, most students have been pretty candid.”

Gingrich emphasized that contact tracing is not used to determine who was in violation of the University’s rules.

“No disciplinary action has ever arisen out of something I’d learned during contact tracing,” she said. “This falls apart really quickly if students start to see it as a punitive thing.”

As of this past week, zero students tested positive, with every isolation and quarantine room currently available for use. 

One comment

  1. That is such good news! No doubt, you all are doing an excellent job which is proven by this report. I am currently a contact tracer on behalf of the Tennessee Department of Health and in my experience, it speaks highly of your efforts to have no new positive cases. Kudos to Dr. Brigety and the staff for being proactive and keeping our kids safe.

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