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The Daily Tar Heel

Updates to the University COVID-19 cluster notification system this spring

Students wear masks outside to prevent the spread of COVID-19 as they walk by Lenoir Dining Hall on Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022.

In the fall of 2020, between Aug. 14 and Aug. 27, the UNC community received Alert Carolina emergency notifications of 12 COVID-19 clusters across residence halls and Greek life housing.

On Aug. 28, the day after the string of notifications, the University announced it would share cluster information only on the Carolina Together website and UNC social media handles. The announcement cited fewer students remaining on campus after the fall shutdown and a decreasing COVID-19 positivity rate for this new notification system, which no longer included Alert Carolina messages.

"... And members of our community are generally aware, based on our prior notification efforts, of the presence of COVID-19 on our campus," the announcement said.

Since then, there have been additional changes to how UNC reports its COVID-19 data and clusters.

Clusters and other COVID-19 case data are now only displayed on the Carolina Together dashboard, instead of individual notifications — a change that was announced in September. The University has also been communicating safety protocols through campus-wide emails.

Thus far this semester, there have not been COVID-19 clusters identified on campus.

Another change that came in the fall of 2021, following the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services' definition, was referring to a cluster as five or more COVID-19 cases with illness onsets or initial positive results within a 14-day period and plausible epidemiological linkage between cases.

"When the University began the cluster notification process last August, our country was in a very different place with the virus," the Carolina Together Testing website said. "And as we have all adapted over the last year, we have also modified the way we notify our campus of clusters, moving from emergency Alert Carolina notifications to social media notifications last fall."

Under the updated definition, five clusters total were identified last fall at Avery, Ehringhaus, Parker and Hinton James residence halls, and one related to an outdoor event at the Eshelman School of Pharmacy.

While clusters are no longer announced through Alert Carolina, the University may notify individuals in a specific residence hall, office building, classroom or other campus space of positive cases in some circumstances.

The University said it will determine the release of non-identifying communications about clusters of positive results based on approved privacy guidelines, according the Carolina Together Testing Program. UNC cannot release identifying medical information due to the State Human Resources Act, Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act and other privacy considerations.

The University will notify the local health department with the current local residence information for any individual who tests positive. This semester, UNC has asymptomatic testing available at the Student Union through the Carolina Together Testing Program by appointment only. Symptomatic testing is available at Campus Health.

If individuals test positive through an off-campus provider such as Walgreens, CVS or a family doctor, they should communicate with Campus Health by emailing

A total of 673 students reported positive COVID-19 cases between Jan. 11 and Jan. 17, according to UNC's dashboard. Over the same time period, 4,323 tests were administered on campus for students and employees. 

Based on the University's cumulative testing this month, the COVID-19 positivity rate is 13.7%.

"One of the things that's very prevalent about omicron is that the contagiousness is higher, so the case numbers are probably going to be higher," Director and Lead Physician of the Carolina Together Testing Program Amir Barzin told The Daily Tar Heel. "But it doesn't necessarily parlay into more severe hospitalizations, and it doesn't elevate the mortality risks."

Following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the University has said that students and employees should isolate for five days after receiving a positive COVID-19 result if they are asymptomatic or their symptoms are improving. Individuals who have tested positive in the past 90 days should not be retested.

"Retesting is a big strain on testing supplies and the system," Barzin said. "Our PCR testing is very, very sensitive, you can have a positive test that lingers for three weeks, four weeks, two months, because there's a very low level of the viral RNA that's left in your nose."

Students who test positive are encouraged to isolate at home or in their residence hall. The University will not be providing isolation spaces or meal delivery this spring.

As of Tuesday, 94 percent of students and 90 percent of all employees have attested to vaccination, according to the Carolina Together Testing Program. UNC's booster shot total as of Tuesday is 7,963.


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CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, a previous version of the article incorrectly stated the number of Alert Carolina emergency notifications. The UNC community has received a total of 12 COVID-19 clusters across residence halls and Greek life housing between Aug. 14 and Aug. 27. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for this error.