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Coronavirus contact tracing: Here's what you need to know for UNC's 2020 fall semester

Campus Health File
Campus Health Services, located in the James A. Taylor building, offers a variety of medical services including nutrition, pharmacy, radiology, counseling and psychological services and other wellness care.

With classes starting in less than a month, questions remain about how the University will handle contact tracing for students who come into contact with a COVID-19-infected person.

The short passage relating to contact tracing on the Campus Health website says that UNC will abide by the CDC definition of a close contact, which it states as: “Any individual within 6 feet of an infected person for at least 15 minutes starting from two days before symptom onset for symptomatic individuals and two days prior to positive specimen collection for asymptomatic individuals."

Students in close contact with an infected person will be notified, told to quarantine, given self-monitoring instructions and be provided arrangements, if necessary, according to the Campus Health website.

The close contacts will also receive self-monitoring instructions and daily emails from Campus Health.

According to the contact tracing policy on the Campus Health website, “close contact” does not include “... individuals who maintain at least 6 feet physical separation in a classroom or congregate setting while masked. …”

Carolina Together, UNC’s roadmap website for the fall semester, says no broad announcement is necessary when a student has tested positive for COVID-19, because the student’s close contacts will be notified personally.

Rising junior Jenna DeMartino said she thinks students should be informed if there are positive cases at UNC.

“I don't like that policy, because I would want to know what's going on on campus and how much I'm at risk to get coronavirus,” she said.

A spokesperson for UNC said the University cannot make broad announcements when students contract COVID-19 because of state and federal laws.

“The Carolina Together website clearly states that the University cannot communicate broadly within a unit or department due to State Human Resources Act and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, as well as other privacy considerations,” the spokesperson said in an email. “This is also consistent with CDC guidance.”

The University has in the past made AlertCarolina announcements for other deadly diseases, including a 2017 alert about a student who tested positive for tuberculosis and a January 2020 announcement about a student with a confirmed case of the mumps.

UNC could release non-identifying communications about clusters of positive results based on approved guidelines, which it does not specify, according to Carolina Together.

DeMartino, who is taking a partially in-person differential equations course, said the thought of not being contacted when someone in her class contracts the virus makes her uneasy.

“I think that if somebody that you're in class with gets coronavirus, then you should know regardless of if you were 6 feet away or not,” she said. “You could still be touching things that they touched.”

The University will provide testing and contact tracing, but it says students, staff, faculty and campus visitors are all responsible for mitigating the spread of COVID-19. 

This includes observing social distancing, wearing a mask and monitoring one’s own health, according to Carolina Together.

“All members of the University community should be familiar with the symptoms of COVID-19 and should seek medical care when appropriate, including complying with medical guidance designed to reduce further transmission of the virus,” the website states.

Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz also informed students in an email July 20 that they will be required to acknowledge UNC's community standards and guidelines as a condition of enrollment for the fall.

DeMartino said apart from the uncertainty she feels regarding the University’s preparations for the fall, much is left unknown about the virus in general.

“I just think that when we get there, there's going to be things that happen that, you know, weren't even considered in the plans and we're just going to have to constantly adapt,” she said. “I'm just worried that once we get there, they're going to realize that it was a really bad idea.”


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