UofSC ramps up its contact tracing program as it prepares for next fall

UofSC ramps up its contact tracing program as it prepares for next fall

COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - Contact tracers have become an integral part of combating the spread of COVID-19.

Their job is to trace those who have come in contact with a positive case and notify them of their exposure.

The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) announced on May 11 that they had identified more than 1,800 contact tracers, surpassing their goal to hire 1,000 of them by June 1.

DHEC isn’t the only one focusing on contact tracing; the University of South Carolina is ramping up their own contact tracing program as they prepare to welcome students back to campus in a few short months.

Dr. Rebecca Caldwell, the UofSC Director of Strategic Health Initiatives, who is heading up the new contact tracing program, said campus life is naturally a close-contact one.

She said they are working to create as much social distancing as possible in areas like the classrooms and cafeterias. They are also getting a team of contact tracers ready in case a student does test positive, making sure it doesn’t lead to a large outbreak.

“The close contact is what we love about higher ed,” Caldwell said. “We envision and really value that people are elbow-to-elbow at lab benches, in the classroom, out in the field with their facility, going to student board meetings, working out at the gym -- that’s what we value about the campus. So there’s a lot to do to try to engineer the experience to create as much social distancing as possible.”

Caldwell said close contact on campus presents unique challenges for combating potential outbreaks on campus, but contact tracers will be a key tool.

“The nature of the collegiate experience is that you might move through six or eight buildings in an average day, so I think our (contact tracing) interviews will be longer and more extensive,” Caldwell said.

Caldwell said once the university is notified of a positive case, a contact tracer will call the student. First, the tracer will make sure the student’s medical needs are met, and they have a plan for quarantining. She said the contact tracer then conducts an interview about where the student might have been exposed to the virus, and who they have come into contact with.

“We have kind of written out a script and we’ll just start with: Have you been to campus? How did you get there? Which classes did you attend in person?” Caldwell explained.

She said UofSC is following the CDC’s guidelines regarding what is considered close contact. It includes people who live together or have been within six feet for 10 to 15 minutes.

She said the contact tracer will then work to identify and notify all students or community members who might be at risk of exposure to speak with them about getting tested for COVID-19 and potentially isolating.

“Eventually, we will have a list of folks we will reach out to, without breaking anyone’s confidentiality, and say we wanted to let you know that you may have been exposed,” Caldwell said. “And let’s talk about...what testing makes sense, as well as explaining what quarantining is, asking them if they have a safe place to go and so on.”

Caldwell said the university is working with DHEC to make sure they meet expectations, give them all the data they need, and they aren’t duplicating work.

“We’ve just continued to kind of mutually agree that it probably makes sense for USC to stand up their own contact tracing,” Caldwell said. “And then work hand-in-hand, kind of using the same best practices that DHEC is going to be using across the state.”

She said testing for the virus and antibodies will be an integral part of their contact tracing efforts.

“If there’s an active infection then we want to be tracing their contacts, and if they have antibodies, then we think it probably means it’s not someone we necessarily need to quarantine,” she explained.

Caldwell said formulas indicate they need about four, full-time contact tracers for the size of the student body. They plan to use some staff at Student Health Services, but are also looking to hire four to eight graduate students at the Arnold School of Public Health.

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