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The Contact Tracing process. Courtesy | Wikipedia Commons

As the number of stu­dents in iso­lation because of COVID-19 nears 130, stu­dents are adjusting to the college’s contact-tracing pro­tocol. 

As orig­i­nally announced in the return-to-school plan in August, Hillsdale’s admin­is­trative team works closely with the Branch-Hillsdale-St. Joseph Com­munity Health Agency and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Ser­vices to observe Centers for Disease Control and Pre­vention guide­lines for contact tracing.

Director of Health and Wellness Brock Lutz said the college’s case man­agement team, which is made up of a rep­re­sen­tative from student affairs and the college health center, work with the local health department to conduct contact tracing. 

“It is truly a team effort and everyone is being helpful — stu­dents, faculty, and staff,” Lutz said. “For example, last Friday night at 7 p.m., there were seven staff members working together to make phone calls and to determine the logistics of moving stu­dents effec­tively.”

According to Hillsdale’s return plan, “the Campus Health Center and Admin­is­tration will manage contact tracing coor­di­nation with the local health department for any student, faculty, staff member, or visitor who tests pos­itive for COVID-19.”

The campus health center is the point of contact for any symp­to­matic student. From there, the health center uses the Hillsdale Hos­pital for testing and antibody tests.

According to the CDC, contact tracing means “letting people know they may have been exposed to COVID-19 and should monitor their health for signs and symptoms of COVID-19, helping people who may have been exposed to COVID-19 get tested, and asking people to self-isolate if they have COVID-19 or self-quar­antine if they are a close contact.”

Before contact tracing, health author­ities first go through a process of iden­ti­fying people who may have been close to the pos­itive case. After testing pos­itive, patients are asked to identify close con­tacts, or people they have been in contact with since two days before they con­tracted the virus. 

According to the CDC website, experts trace con­tacts based on several cri­teria of “close contact,” which is defined as “someone who was within six feet of an infected person for at least 15 minutes starting from two days before illness onset (or, for asymp­to­matic patients, two days prior to specimen col­lection) until the time the patient is iso­lated.”

The college has repeatedly empha­sized the impor­tance of the school’s coop­er­ation with the local health department. 

“The local health department is respon­sible for contact tracing,” Lutz said in an email. “The college and the local health department have been working in tandem to inves­tigate cases and contact trace. However, we have been trying to expedite things by iden­ti­fying and iso­lating those indi­viduals as soon as we can and assisting the health department in their process. Expe­diency is espe­cially important on our campus because our stu­dents not only need to be informed that they should be iso­lated but many of them also might need a place to stay.”

In response to con­cerns from the student body that contact tracing has not been effective, Lutz said the admin­is­tration has been “espe­cially grateful” for student feedback.

“Contact tracing is time-con­suming and not always precise,” Lutz said. “In deciding who qual­ifies for close contact with a pos­itive result, we use the health department stan­dards of: hugging or kissing, eating or drinking after someone, being around a pos­itive indi­vidual when they were sneezing or coughing, and in close contact of six feet or less for more than 15 minutes. Some­times it is not com­pletely clear if someone qual­ifies, so we try to work with the stu­dents to gain more clarity as to not put someone in iso­lation unnec­es­sarily.”

While 15 minutes of pro­longed contact is the standard for prompting contact iso­lation, whether or not indi­viduals were wearing face masks while in contact, the duration of the exposure, as well as physical contact, all factor into contact inves­ti­gation. 

Iden­ti­fying  a con­firmed case’s exposed con­tacts follows con­tract tracing.

Junior Clare Nalepa received her cer­ti­fi­cation in contact tracing through Johns Hopkins this summer. While she doesn’t play a role in the college’s contact tracing program, she was trained to identify, manage, and con­front pos­sible points of contact.

“I took a course and became a cer­tified contact tracer, meaning I’m on the national reg­istry for contact tracing, so any orga­ni­zation that needs a contact tracer in general can access the reg­istry,” Nalepa said. “We learned how to make sure that we could contact trace fol­lowing HIPAA guide­lines and what COVID-19 contact tracing would entail.”

One of the respon­si­bil­ities of a contact tracer, Nalepa said, is to analyze the time frame between initial contact and the patient’s infec­tious period.

“We learned how long you’re infec­tious, and how long you’re symp­to­matic,” Nalepa said. “And up to two days before you yourself are symp­to­matic, you’ve already been infecting people for up to two days. So that’s why the quar­antine period for people who are actively showing symptoms is shorter — 10 days instead of 14.”

Lutz said that despite some uncer­tainty about contact tracing on campus, he is encouraged by stu­dents who remain ded­i­cated to campus safety.

“The stu­dents have been helpful every step of the way as well, even when they are dis­ap­pointed or frus­trated,” Lutz said.