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Town officials, students concerned about uncertainty of off-campus COVID-19 reporting

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Chapel Ridge Apartments, a popular off-campus apartment complex, is reported to have had unmasked social events such as volleyball games.

When Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and Provost Bob Blouin announced UNC’s shift to entirely remote instruction for undergraduates in mid-August, they outlined de-densification efforts for on-campus housing and urged off-campus students to follow health guidelines. 

Still, uncertainty regarding the accuracy of off-campus students’ COVID-19 test result reporting persists.

As of Thursday, UNC has reported 1,113 cumulative positive cases among students since February 2020.

According to the UNC COVID-19 Dashboard, the cumulative total includes positive results from Campus Health and clinical testing, proactive community testing and self-reports. Of the positive tests reported, 650 were administered at Campus Health and 326 came from residence hall clusters. 

Chapel Hill Town Council member Hongbin Gu said in an email that the high positivity rates reflected on UNC’s dashboard indicate under-testing and underreporting. 

Gu also said the disparity between the number of on-campus cases reported and the total number of cases reported points to an increase in cases from off-campus housing.

“The off-campus students who have mild symptoms may not actively seek testing, and some may list their hometown addresses while receiving tests, contributing to the undercounting and high positive test rate in the official report,” she said.

Carrboro Town Council member Randee Haven-O’Donnell said she had a similar concern about the accuracy of off-campus student case reporting.

“I think transparency is still a concern that municipalities have because we have no way of knowing what the spread is in the municipalities without knowing the students that live in the municipalities, what their numbers are,” she said.

How reporting works

An email statement sent by UNC Media Relations on behalf of Campus Health Executive Director Ken Pittman said if a student, faculty or staff member tests positive for COVID-19 at a location off campus, they are required, based on the University’s Guideline on Health Monitoring, to notify Campus Health or the Employee Occupational Health Clinic.

“If they do not report a positive test result then Campus Health or EOHC must rely on the timeliness of the outside testing location to report results to the Orange County Health Department,” Pittman said.

Community Relations Director Todd McGee said in an email that all labs, including Campus Health, are required to report positive cases to the state, which is Orange County Health Department’s primary source of case information. 

McGee said once the lab results are sent to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, they’re assigned to the local public health agency with jurisdiction over the address listed on the test.

“For some students, that address is their parent’s address, if they are on their parent’s health insurance,” he said in the email. “The local health department in that county of residence will do an initial investigation, determine they are UNC students, and assign the case back to OCHD.”

McGee said the county health department works closely with UNC to ensure the timely and accurate sharing of case information. He said laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 cases of UNC students are counted in the Orange County COVID-19 dashboard as the county is made aware of them.

Carrboro Fire Chief and Emergency Manager Dave Schmidt said emergency managers, mayors, department heads, the county chair, UNC and UNC Health have been collaborating to ensure accurate reporting. 

“Wonderfully, right now, what we’re seeing is some of our lowest numbers of increase in the county,” he said.

Schmidt said lately, this collaborative group — known as the MAC — has shifted some of its focus to flu season and vaccine implementation.

The situation off campus

The Orange County dashboard indicates that 47 percent of the 2,552 people who have tested positive in the county are between the ages of 18 and 24. 

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The dashboard reports that, since Aug. 16, 118 patients have visited the emergency department in Orange County with COVID-like illness. It also estimates that over 480 COVID cases were hospitalized in the UNC System during the same period.

Taylor Steele, a senior at UNC who lives in off-campus apartment complex Chapel Ridge, said she has seen groups of around 30 people playing basketball or volleyball without masks. She said she believes there are cases at Chapel Ridge, even though she hasn’t received any notification from the apartment complex about testing, reporting or positive cases. 

“Just even walking around the apartment complex feels a bit unsafe at times,” Steele said.

How apartment complexes are responding

Courtney Schnee is the senior vice president and asset manager at Northwood Ravin, which manages several properties in Chapel Hill, including Carolina Square. Schnee said Northwood Ravin has taken several steps to limit the spread of coronavirus at its Chapel Hill properties, including using hospital-grade sanitizing misters and restricting the capacity of amenities such as the pool.

“We have been able to introduce a program where residents can have a complimentary telehealth consultation with a health care provider,” Schnee said. “And we are covering the cost of that because we want residents to have peace of mind, whether it’s how they’re feeling in terms of their personal health or what the best way to stay informed of the latest prevention guidelines are.”

Schnee said Northwood Ravin has had cases at its Chapel Hill properties. She said although she didn’t have exact numbers, Carolina Square had seen the most COVID-19 activity. 

“As far as communication with our residents, we’ve been working with the health department as needed,” she said. “The best we can do without violating anyone’s right to privacy is to just let residents know if there has been a confirmed case because we cannot disclose names, we cannot disclose an apartment number, so we try to share as much information as we can ethically.”

Northwood Ravin is not the only apartment complex that has alerted residents of COVID-19 cases. However, Schnee said this type of communication with all residents is not legally required.

Steele said she would appreciate more transparency from Chapel Ridge.

“I think it’d be nice if they could tell us just so that we know,” she said. “But I don’t think they will, if they even find out.”

Chapel Ridge did not respond to a request for comment.

Haven-O’Donnell said, ultimately, the University and county should have had a more transparent reporting process from the beginning. 

“It shouldn’t have taken the communication conflict between UNC and the county to get us where we are today,” she said. “I’m glad we are where we are, but I think we can still do better.”


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