College students debate effectiveness of contact tracing investigations

Written By Caitlyn Scott, Co-News Editor

As COVID-19 cases rise nationally, some students are raising concerns about how effectively higher education institutions are conducting their contact tracing investigations.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that contact tracing for COVID-19 is the “key to slowing the spread of COVID-19,” helping to notify those who may have been in “close contact with someone diagnosed with COVID-19 and helping them determine what steps to take, depending on their vaccination status and history of prior infection with SARS-CoV-2.”

According to the official Operations Manual for Returning to Campus, the contact tracing process at Point Park begins by identifying and communicating with those who are confirmed positive and then reaching out to those who had been in close contact with a confirmed case. For students on campus who are confirmed or have been potentially exposed, they may be subjected to quarantine and will be asked to self-monitor any potential symptoms.

“Tracing is conducted via phone,” Director of Project, Safety and Risk Management Jeff Checcio said. “All students and staff are asked to contact Student Health if they have symptoms and/or if they tested positive. That is a good starting point, and the nurse will let the person know when isolation can end. The nurse informs the tracer of the positive case, and the tracer will contact that person to identify any close contacts. Then the tracer will contact each close contact and explain they have come in close contact with someone who has COVID and to call Student Health. Tracers do not give the name of the person who tested positive. Many of the close contacts are roommates, so they already may know.”

Despite the CDC’s continued insistence on the importance of contact tracing,
students say they are seeing more faults with how Point Park currently conducts contact tracing now than they have within the last two years.

Senior journalism major Victoria Sadauskas said that since transferring to Point Park in the fall of 2020, she has felt that the institution has not been effective in fully alerting students on campus of potential exposures to COVID-19 positive cases.

“I have not received any alerts regarding anyone on campus being possibly exposed to COVID-19, which is something that honestly scares me every time I come to class,” Sadauskas said. “Someone who is sitting near me could have it, and due to the careless nature of some people, we could never know unless they get tested and then isolate themselves.”

Along with Point Park, students from other Pennsylvania colleges and universities, such as Penn State and Clarion University, are mixed in their opinions of how well their respective institutions have handled conducting COVID-19 contact tracing procedures on their campuses.

Calvin Murphy, a freshman cybersecurity major at Penn State, said that his school has done little to alert students of possible COVID-19 exposures during both the Fall and Spring 2022 semester.

“I don’t think the university alerts you. All the people I know that got COVID told me themselves,” Murphy said. “I’m sure I’ve been around people who have been exposed. and I have friends who have tested positive…but like I’ve said, the university did not tell me, my friends personally did.”

According to Penn State’s official website, the COVID-19 contact tracing process currently follows a four step process. The steps reportedly start with identifying reported positive cases on campus through testing, and university health officials work with students affected and alert their close contacts. Penn State began the semester with mandated weekly testing for unvaccinated students and employees that will continue during the entire term. They are also offering voluntary on-campus testing for any student or employee, even if they are fully vaccinated and asymptomatic.

Officials recommend that students contact the campus’s contact tracing and health officials through the submission of forms or through calls made to the institution’s health services; there is no indication on Penn State’s official website as to how health services reach out to close contacts about possible exposures.

At Clarion University, on the other hand, Destiny Nicol, a sophomore English education major, said she believes that Clarion has done well with contacting students who may have been exposed to COVID-19, considering email alerts are sent to those who may have been exposed.

“If someone in your class tests positive, they will email you to let you know of a possible exposure,” Nicol said. “Once they confirm the exposure, they may have you quarantined based on your vaccination status. I feel like my school has done a good job with contact tracing.”

Along with Nicol, nursing student Alison Bowser said that although she thinks Clarion has done well with alerting students of potential exposures through email, the university is lacking with other COVID-19 precautionary measures on campus.

“They don’t provide us with masks,” Bowser said. “We also used to sanitize buildings every few hours, but I’m not sure if that changed this semester.”

“Students are encouraged to maintain their own supply of masks,” Clarion University says on its COVID FAQ website page. “A limited number of disposable masks are available at the campus information desk for students who have lost or forgotten to bring an approved mask.”

Other than this, the university’s contact tracing protocols were not listed on the institution’s official website. For Point Park, Penn State and Clarion, there is no publicly available data on how many contact tracing investigations have occurred during the pandemic.

Despite students showcasing mixed reactions concerning COVID-19 contact tracing within their university, Sadauskas said she believes that Point Park should continue to improve the institution’s COVID-19 guidelines, to aid in slowing the spread throughout the next winter months.

“I think there are several ways that PPU could greatly improve their approach to stopping the spread of COVID-19,” Sadauskas said. “A major one would be offering online classes again if students do not feel comfortable being on campus for in-person classes. Another would be putting better and more effective social distancing and safety measures into place around campus. Not only are the elevators way too small for six people to be in there at once, but the buttons and other surface tops around campus are constantly being touched yet so rarely cleaned. I personally believe the school needs to take a step back and really think about what better methods can be put into place to stop the spread.”