Stopping the spread of COVID-19 on a university campus is a collective effort. It takes a number of units and departments — that might not be commonly known to the campus community — working behind the scenes to get the work done.
On the Ann Arbor campus of the University of Michigan, that work is led by Environment, Health & Safety, which performs case investigation and contact tracing for campus COVID-19 infections through an agreement with the Washtenaw County Health Department.
When a U-M student, staff or faculty member tests positive for COVID-19, the EHS team takes all necessary steps to prevent the spread of the disease by identifying, isolating and quarantining the individuals exposed to the virus.
“We’re notified of positive cases or positive individuals within our campus community by U-M’s Occupational Health Services, University Health Service, Washtenaw County Health Department or through self-reporting,” said Danielle Sheen, executive director of EHS. “Once a case is brought to our attention we immediately begin the process of getting that person into isolation and start contact tracing.”
While contact tracing and public health notifications are typically facilitated through county health departments, EHS leads this work on campus because of the unit’s familiarly with the campus community, ability to act swiftly to identify and contact individuals, and because the department’s years of experience handling infectious diseases outbreaks.
“We take a unified approach to public health notifications and disease investigation that is consistent for all students, faculty and staff,” said Sheen. “We also share information and use the same methods for tracking cases which makes it easier for us to notify one another.”
The disease investigation process, which starts as soon as EHS is made aware that an individual has tested positive for COVID-19, begins with a case investigator conducting an in-depth interview to determine the individual’s infectious period and their whereabouts and close contacts during that period.
Taking place in tandem, individuals identified as having been in close contact with a person diagnosed with COVID-19, while they were contagious, are notified directly by EHS and the Contract Tracing Corps indicating their exposure to the virus. Close contact is defined as being within 6 feet of an infected person for at least 15 minutes. This is the contact tracing process.
Those individuals are also instructed to monitor their health for symptom development and quarantine for14 days. Throughout the process, the individual is supported during their quarantine and connected to additional resources.
“We aim to conduct case investigations and contact tracing as expeditiously as possible so we can get those individuals out of the general population and help prevent further spread,” Sheen said.
In an effort to provide transparency and to share reminders for best practices on how to stop the spread of COVID-19, EHS takes an additional step and also distributes a public health community notification to the buildings where positive cases have been identified to have been in the building during their infectious period as determined through case investigation.
In the instance a student, tested by UHS, is positive for COVID-19, UHS in collaboration with the Office of the Registrar, will notify those taking in-person classes with the positive individual. This notification is for awareness and not to indicate close contact.
In an effort to protect privacy, public health community notifications regarding positive cases in classrooms are not posted and not included in building notifications.
Earlier this semester, the university developed a dashboard to provide regular updates to the community about the state of COVID-19 on campus.
The dashboard includes cumulative data about the total number of tests and the total number of cases, information about positivity rates and isolation numbers since March 8. Additional information is provided on surveillance testing data, COVID cases in residence halls and state and regional trends.
University officials encourage the campus community to monitor the Campus Maize & Blueprint website for information about community standards, health and safety guidelines, and the many steps the university is taking to help reduce the spread of COVID-19.