With thousands of students, faculty and staff on the Texas Tech campus, the collection of COVID-19 case data and contact tracing may seem like a complex process to some.
From having to report daily COVID-19 case numbers to conducting contact tracing across campus, how Tech manages different aspects of the virus’ spread might involve multiple elements.
Dr. David Edwards, medical director of Tech Student Health Services, said he serves on the Tech COVID-19 response team.
“That’s a committee of individuals, which have been involved in designing and implementing policy and procedure for, really, the past two months or so in preparation for what the fall semester would look like,” he said.
Edwards assists with contact tracing on campus, he said. In addition to being on the phone with those who report positive cases, he said he was involved in helping develop contact tracing and symptom monitoring protocols.
“Currently, we have seven different groups involved in the contact tracing process for the university,” he said. “Those include medical professionals, trained volunteers and graduate students who have been trained as well.”
Almost 80 people are either doing direct contact tracing or symptom monitoring, Edwards said.
In addition to being a part of this response team, Edwards said he worked with colleagues in information technology at Tech to help create an online reporting tool that can be found on the dashboard.
The Tech COVID-19 dashboard is one place members of the campus community can access information regarding COVID-19 cases and health precautions on campus.
The contact tracing process starts with a person getting tested for COVID-19, Edwards said. Once an individual receives a positive test result, they are encouraged to go to the dashboard to report their results.
“Once they report a positive result in the system, then they are automatically connected to our database,” he said. “They also receive an email in which they are given instructions from the city health department and me, and also notifications are sent to the Dean of Students to help with academic accommodations and to our colleagues in TTU Housing for situations in which people live in the residential halls and need isolation in a separate room.”
Meredith Imes, COVID-19 coordinator at Tech, said campus contact tracers are focused on those within the Tech community, but they also work with the City of Lubbock by providing COVID-19-related information regarding someone not affiliated with the university.
“Our Student Health Services is in constant communication with [the city], sharing data to ensure that we’re identifying people within our walls,” she said, “and then we’re sharing the information with the City of Lubbock if there is somebody identified that is outside the Texas Tech community.”
After a campus case has been reported, Edwards said the contact tracing team will reach out to the individual to identify information about them. He said it is important for people to answer their phones when Student Health Services calls.
Health complications, the symptoms one currently is showing and if one experienced any high-risk exposures or close contact are examples of information Edwards said Student Health Services will ask for during the call.
Close contact is defined as being within 6 feet of a COVID-19-positive individual for at least 15 minutes starting from two days before symptoms started or two days prior to positive specimen collection for asymptomatic patients, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.
“Once we have identified who those high-risk individuals are, we can then reach out to those individuals and get a sense of whether they’re experiencing any symptoms or not and then determine the need for quarantine, which is defined as a 14-day period of staying isolated in one’s own bedroom, using their own restroom if at all possible and not leaving except to get medical attention,” Edwards said.
For individuals who tested positive for COVID-19, Edwards said a minimum of 10 days of isolation is required.
“The decision to test is up to the individual and really should be made in conjunction with the healthcare provider,” he said. “But a negative test from someone in quarantine does not release them from quarantine.”
At that point when a person tests positive, Edwards said symptom monitors will come in based on the severity of one’s symptoms and one’s medical history. Symptom monitors will reach out to people after their diagnosis every day in severe cases or every three to five days depending on the situation.
Regardless, first reporting a positive COVID-19 case may impact how contact tracers can seek out individuals at risk and start the contact tracing process.
Reporting a positive COVID-19 case using the reporting tool on the Tech COVID-19 dashboard helps notify the Student Health Services team and affiliated contact tracers to follow-up with individuals, Imes said. This helps determine who may have had high-risk contact within the Tech community.
In addition to the positive case reporting tool, Imes said the dashboard has a quick assessment tool that allows the user to answer three basic questions to determine their potential level of exposure to COVID-19. The tool is designed to be used at the discretion of various campus units to verify if a faculty or staff member will be able to enter a certain facility on campus.
Faculty and staff members are encouraged to take some form of self-screening daily before coming into work, Imes said.
“And each response comes with a green, yellow or red indicator that basically helps provide users with either clearance or additional information on how to proceed,” she said regarding the quick assessment. “So, the person goes in, they answer these quick questions and then there’s a color tied to their response that then can be shown to gain access to different areas depending on the discretion of the person that wants them to use that.”
Members of the Tech community also have access to a full-screening tool on the dashboard, which also is encouraged for people to take, Imes said.
“The full-screening tool, which is in addition to the quick assessment, gives everyone on campus the ability to review symptoms of COVID-19 and undergo a thorough self-screening if that’s what they choose to do,” she said.
Both tools have been developed based on CDC guidelines and consultations from medical professionals, Imes said.
Utilizing a self-screening tool could have different benefits when keeping oneself healthy on campus.
Whether one is quarantining and monitoring symptoms or one is showing symptoms that could be allergies, Edwards said self-screening can keep a person vigilant. The sooner a person can identify if they have the virus and isolate, the safer people will be.
“The self-assessment tool allows people to briefly and efficiently take a step back, think about how they’re feeling that day compared to how they usually feel and then plan accordingly,” he said.
With flu season underway, Edwards said people also should take a flu vaccine.
“We do have those available through Student Health Services as well as through local pharmacies in the community,” he said regarding flu shots.
Self-screening tools and tips on how one should monitor symptoms are not the only resources available on the COVID-19 dashboard.
COVID-19 campus case information, which is compiled from a variety of local medical sources, are reported and updated Monday through Friday, Imes said. Numbers reported Monday afternoon include the data from the prior weekend.
The case data, which has been publicly recorded since Aug. 3 when Tech moved to Phase II of COVID-19 operations, includes the number of total reported cases, new recovered people, total recovered people, new active cases and total active cases, according to the dashboard.
Regarding the potential to report possible COVID-19 related hospitalizations or deaths among the Tech community, Imes said the university always is open to sharing more data and including additional information that can help the campus community depending on the needs that may arise.
Regardless, Edwards said gathering and reporting this data can consist of a variety of factors, such as the dashboard resources and COVID-19 testing.
It is a 24/7 commitment to look at the case numbers, Edwards said. He is grateful for the online reporting tool that makes the process more efficient.
Due to the number of people who reported positive cases, Edwards said there can be a waiting period when reporting certain cases. Some COVID-19 tests are the rapid antigen tests that show results within 30 minutes to an hour, and some tests are polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, which can take 24 to 48 hours to receive results.
“I’m confident that the results we’re reporting are valid both from our campus and from our city,” he said.
The cases Tech reports are daily assessments based on information from the city health department and reports from Tech Health Sciences Center testing and the Texas Department of Emergency Management testing site on campus, Edwards said.
Edwards is grateful for the TDEM testing site on campus, he said. The site has allowed the university to devote more resources to those sick with COVID-19.
A list of COVID-19 testing facilities can be found on the Student Health Services website.
In addition to getting tested, Edwards said he would prefer students to abide by the guidelines set forth in the Tech Commitment plan, whether that be staying home when one feels sick, wearing a mask not just in a classroom setting and social distancing.
“Taking these steps in terms of prevention, then hopefully we can slow the spread of COVID,” he said, “[We will] have fewer cases and then, you know, have a safer campus overall while continuing to enjoy the activities that the university has to offer.”