The Daily Tar Heel

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Tuesday October 26th

UNC student creates anonymous COVID-19 contact tracing website

Students at UNC-Chapel Hill waiting in line at the CURRENT Art Space to get tested for COVID-19. Photo taken on Jan. 19, 2021.
Buy Photos Students at UNC-Chapel Hill waiting in line at the CURRENT Art Space to get tested for COVID-19. Photo taken on Jan. 19, 2021.

Over the past week, students may have noticed slips of paper taped to surfaces throughout campus, encouraging them to report possible COVID-19 exposures using a printed QR code.

That QR code leads to the website of UNςTrace, an anonymous, non-University-affiliated COVID-19 contact tracing initiative. It was created by first-year Sophie van Duin nearly two weeks ago. 

She was inspired to start the website after a discussion in her English class about University COVID-19 policies and the need for community outreach. A classmate brought up UNC’s contact tracing procedures as an area that could use improvement.

“We didn't know about people in our class that could potentially have COVID,” van Duin said. “The data isn't really reflecting the amount of people I see absent from my classes, and the amount of people that my teachers are like ‘Yeah, they're quarantining.’”

As a result, van Duin said the data on the UNςTrace website specifically focuses on potential exposures from classes. 

The reporting form includes options for students to submit known exposure or positive test reports, including whether they are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms. There are also boxes to include information about specific classes and residence hall buildings. 

She said there has only been a few submissions so far, but van Duin hopes to soon publish the raw report data in a spreadsheet with summaries of individual classes or residence halls that have reported cases and exposures.

UNC does not publicly report data on cases in schools or departments, nor does it typically include classmates in lists of close contacts of individuals who test positive for COVID-19, according to a message to the campus community from the vice chancellor for student affairs Amy Johnson.

“A close contact is someone who has been within six feet of a known positive for more than 15 minutes cumulative time, regardless of whether a face mask was worn by either party,” the message stated. “People who are at least six feet apart in a classroom or group setting will typically not be considered a close contact.”

In many classrooms, however, students are fewer than six feet apart. Sophomore Vishal Easwar said the close proximity to his classmates is sometimes worrying.

“It’s definitely a concern, considering there’s very little spacing between us,” he said. “And even though I’ve seen adherence to masking, I’m worried about how many students are actually vaccinated.”

According to the Carolina Together website, 93 percent of students and 84 percent of all employees have attested that they are vaccinated, as of Wednesday.

Johnson said in a statement that the University is gravely concerned about sharing confidential medical information through unofficial sites. 

“These sites are not a reliable way to measure your risk and can create an unnecessary cause for alarm or a false sense of security,” Johnson said. “We have trained professionals who, in coordination with the Orange County Health Department, conduct very thorough contact tracing for the campus community.”

The UNςTrace website is fully anonymous, van Duin said, and doesn’t collect any identifying information. 

She added that she has no desire to take away from other UNC or North Carolina initiatives for COVID-19 tracing and safety, such as the UNC-Chapel Hill COVID-19 Dashboard and the SlowCOVIDNC app. 

“It's not supposed to replace any existing tools,” van Duin said. “My point was more just to add like one extra tool, not to replace anything, just to add an extra resource for people who felt like they could use it.”

Staff Writer Nayeli Jaramillo-Plata contributed reporting.


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