The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Thursday December 8th

Breaking down UNC's COVID-19 dashboard

<p>DTH Photo Illustration. &nbsp;An Alert Carolina message sent on Saturday, March 21, 2020 confirmed &nbsp;multiple members of the UNC community have tested positive for COVID-19.</p>
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DTH Photo Illustration.  An Alert Carolina message sent on Saturday, March 21, 2020 confirmed  multiple members of the UNC community have tested positive for COVID-19.

As the first week of classes came to an end, UNC saw four COVID-19 clusters over the weekend.

There are clusters at two residence halls, Granville Towers and the off-campus fraternity house Sigma Nu. The positive cases within these clusters are expected to be completely updated within the UNC COVID-19 dashboard on Monday, Associate Vice Chancellor for University Communications Beth Keith said. 

UNC has seen 189 COVID-19 cases since February, as of Friday — the last time the dashboard was updated. Of these cases, 149 were students and 40 were employees.  One thousand six hundred sixty-six total tests have been conducted from campus testing since February.

The University reported this data daily until about a month ago. Now, the dashboard will be updated every Monday.

The Roadmap Implementation Team, led by Provost Bob Blouin, is responsible for making decisions about the UNC COVID-19 dashboard. The 11-member team meets daily.

The University reports a “relatively long list” of information to the UNC System office daily, including new positive cases, but this data is confidential, Blouin told The Daily Tar Heel.

Blouin said the public-facing UNC dashboard will guide University leadership in their off-ramp considerations in partnership with the UNC System Board of Governors, which ultimately makes the call on closing a campus.

“In terms of our own advocacy for taking an off-ramp, it will be guided by this data,” Blouin said. “We’ve been very careful not to identify a single metric that would be the metric that would cause us to want to take an off-ramp.”

He said some metrics that are more important than others are:

  • Availability of tests.
  • Turnaround time of 24-36 hours for test results.
  • Quarantine and isolation capacity.

Blouin also said University leaders are looking to incorporate measures of compliance, such as mask-wearing and social distancing, in their considerations.

The University and UNC System have not given a specific threshold at which campus operations would be further reduced or shut down.

Increase in positive tests

UNC has one isolation dorm for students who test positive, Parker Residence Hall, and one quarantine dorm, Craige North, for those identified as close contacts but not yet confirmed as positive for COVID-19. The University uses the CDC definition of a close contact of “anyone who was within 6 feet of an infected person for at least 15 minutes.”

The campus isolation dorm has a total of 85 rooms and the campus quarantine dorm a total of 63 rooms. These spaces are intended for on-campus residents, and individuals in them receive daily monitoring calls from Campus Health staff members.

Campus Health Executive Director Ken Pittman told The Daily Tar Heel Thursday there was one student in on-campus isolation and 12 students in on-campus quarantine. The day before, Pittman said, three students were in isolation but family members took home two of these students.

As of Thursday, Pittman said UNC has adequate isolation and quarantine space capacity on campus.

According to Friday’s dashboard, three students were in isolation and 18 in quarantine on campus. This occupancy data does not reflect those in off-campus isolation or quarantine.

For individuals who test positive for COVID-19 cases or are identified as close contacts and reside off campus, Campus Health provides instructions for proper quarantine and isolation.

Pittman said University leadership is evaluating options should the need for additional isolation and quarantine spaces arise, and some of these options include off-campus leases.

When reporting the four COVID-19 clusters via Alert Carolina, the University did not provide specific case numbers of each cluster, but uses the NCDHHS definition for a “cluster,” which is “a minimum of five cases in the same facility within a 14-day period and plausible epidemiological linkage between cases.”

Blouin said they cannot release specific case numbers, or notify the public of cases lower than five, due to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. The Department of Education has issued guidance that says universities can release case information as long as individuals are not identified.

UNC Media Relations said the University determined that a COVID-19 cluster meets the definition for an emergency notification to the public via Alert Carolina, by the guidelines of the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Crime Statistics Act. 

“Obviously, we can only report what we know about.”

Jim Thomas, associate professor in the Gillings School of Global Public Health, who specializes in pandemic ethics, said the University does not identify cases below five due to “deductive identification” — it would be easier for people to piece together who the positive cases are based on other events and information surrounding the cases if the public was notified.

“That begins to violate their privacy, and so there’s an attempt to keep the numbers into a higher number so that we don’t inadvertently shame somebody or reveal their identity in a way that would be inappropriate,” Thomas said.

But he also said the lack of communication about the number of cases within the clusters identified could cause increased mistrust of the University.

“When the numbers are above five, it would be helpful to know if it was six or 20,” Thomas said. “And that kind of information could be communicated, but I don’t see it being communicated.”

Gillings professor Audrey Pettifor said the infections in the four reported clusters between Friday and Sunday were likely caused by asymptomatic individuals who came back to campus.

“I would be surprised if the clusters are related to each other, and depending on when people came back to campus, it seems like these are people who probably came back with asymptomatic infection probably,” Pettifor said. “So to me, it suggests that the prevalence, the level of infection among students, people with asymptomatic infection was higher than what we anticipated it to be based on the data that we’ve been seeing in Chapel Hill.”

UNC’s total positivity rate on the dashboard since February 2020 is 8.9 percent. The positivity rates reported over the last three weeks range between two and 11 percent.

As classes started last week and many students moved back to campus, Pittman said an increase in COVID-19 cases is expected.

“As we have more students that are congregating closer together, even if they’re following community standards, they’re just in different kinds of environments,” Pittman said. “I would anticipate that we could see a slight increase over the next week or two just by virtue of that.”

UNC’s testing protocol

The Campus Health COVID-19 testing center is on the ground floor, and testing is provided for those who have access to the facility, which includes all students and postdoctoral fellows.

Campus Health has about 20 different providers who test students for COVID-19 on a rotating basis, and they use a PCR nasal swab test, Pittman said. 

“It’s the test that has the highest level of sensitivity right now, or accuracy of result,” Pittman said.

The testing kits are then sent to either LabCorp or a laboratory at UNC Hospitals, and the current turnaround time for these tests is one to two days, according to Pittman.

The test results for students reported by Campus Health are included in the UNC dashboard weekly. However, the reporting process is different for faculty, staff and students who get tested elsewhere.

“There certainly could be individuals who get tested over the weekend back home, they come back to Chapel Hill, they get a test result, they never tell us and so that could be someone that potentially would not be included in our numbers,” Pittman said. “Obviously, we can only report what we know about.”

“We’ve been very careful not to identify a single metric that would be the metric that would cause us to want to take an off-ramp.”

In some cases, UNC employees and students have to self-report for their result to be accounted for in the dashboard. In other instances, the Orange County Health Department will notify Campus Health of positive cases, especially for the purpose of contact tracing.

Campus Health is responsible for UNC’s positive COVID-19 cases, even if the testing was not done through the campus testing center.

Contact tracing is done through interviews with positive individuals to determine any close contacts. Those individuals are contacted for additional interviews to identify other potential exposures.

“One of the things that is important is if it’s determined that they’re a close contact, the human nature and human tendency is to want to get tested right away, but it is more advisable to get tested seven to 10 days after exposure,” Pittman said. “So what will happen with many students is that we will want them to quarantine and if we determine that testing is advisable, then we want that testing not to occur one or two days after they’re exposed, but to occur seven to 10 days when they are much more prone to get an accurate test result.”

Blouin encouraged students to participate in contact tracing efforts of the University, so they will be able to properly offer quarantine and isolation guidelines for students.

“If we don’t and they are positive too, then they will infect many, many more people and put the community at risk and really put our abilities to keep this university open at risk,” Blouin said.


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