Indiana Daily Student

‘It’s a perfect storm’: IU contact tracing faces increased COVID-19 cases

<p>Indiana University sophomore K.J. Helloms submits a saliva sample for COVID-19 mitigation testing Oct. 15, 2020, at Memorial Stadium. IU Chief Health Officer Aaron Carroll said contact tracing is facing an increased volume of COVID-19 cases this semester. </p>

Indiana University sophomore K.J. Helloms submits a saliva sample for COVID-19 mitigation testing Oct. 15, 2020, at Memorial Stadium. IU Chief Health Officer Aaron Carroll said contact tracing is facing an increased volume of COVID-19 cases this semester.

On Thursday, Jan. 13, IU senior Peyton Conner’s at-home COVID-19 test was negative. The next day she had a sore throat. Conner took a symptomatic test that night, Jan. 14, and received a positive result.

The growth in COVID-19 infections from the Omicron variant is believed to be a result of the variant’s increased transmissibility and ability to bypass immunity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Theresa Vernon, program manager for IU’s contact tracing team, said the constant rise and fall in cases at IU correlate with the number of COVID-19 cases in Indiana. This semester is no different.

“It’s a perfect storm of highly transmissible Omicron boost plus students coming back at the beginning of January,” Vernon said.

IU emailed Conner and texted her a daily symptom checker, but she said IU contact tracing never called her. Instead, she called them.

“They never contacted me, and it didn’t ever seem like they were going to,” Conner said. “Maybe I just expected them to be a little quicker because I thought it was kind of serious.”

Conner told the contact tracer all the classes she had been in and who she could remember sitting next to. She also listed off the friends she had been around recently.

“I felt bad that I could have possibly spread it,” Conner said.

She said her friends, whose full names she reported, were never contacted by IU contact tracing.

“I’m not necessarily sure how the system is working,” Conner said.

On Jan. 20, almost a week after Conner tested positive, she said she received a call checking in on her from a woman affiliated with IU Health, who recommended she extend her isolation due to her continuing symptoms. 

As Conner filled out the daily symptom checker, it told her to isolate until day 10. However, she said she received a contradictory email from IU that told her the isolation period was over on day five.

The CDC changed their recommended isolation period from 10 days to five Dec. 27, 2021.

If IU’s response to the COVID-19 spread was better in the beginning of the semester, contact tracing would be easier, Conner said.

“I feel bad because I really think that there is this overload of cases right now, but I think that’s something that probably should have been addressed in the first few weeks,” Conner said.

Vernon, program manager for IU’s contact tracing team, said contact tracers reach out to any students, faculty and staff on all IU campuses or with any IU affiliation. 

IU has 23 contact tracers, 10 of whom are full time and 13 who are part time, Vernon said in a follow-up email to the Indiana Daily Student. Seven of the part-time contact tracers are IU graduate and undergraduate students, she said.

IU’s contact tracing team has taken steps to frontload communication, Vernon said. The automated email, sent to anyone IU is aware of testing positive, contains the information needed to isolate safely, she said.

“With the shortened isolation period to five days, in the surge of positivity, we just aren’t getting to every single person,” Vernon said. “We’re just doing our best.”

Vernon said contact tracers are doing what they can to speak to individuals with positive tests before day five. If it’s day six to 10, the tracers still want to speak to the individual and see what close contacts they can identify who might still be in their quarantine period.

“In an ideal world, we usually get to people within a few hours,” Vernon said. “But now, it can be up to three days before we get to somebody, and then their isolation is almost halfway over.”

In a follow-up email, Vernon said if a person gets a voicemail from a contact tracer it would be helpful for the individual to call contact tracing back rather than waiting for a second call.

“Contact tracing is only as good as the information we get from the individual,” Vernon said.

Close contacts are encouraged to get tested, regardless of vaccination status, she said. However, she said IU does not require close contacts to get tested for COVID-19.

Vernon said if close contacts develop any symptoms, they should schedule a symptomatic test. 

Close contacts who are vaccinated should wear a mask for 10 days and get tested on day five. Unvaccinated close contacts should quarantine for five days prior to getting tested, she said.

IU junior Lizzie Hicks tested positive for COVID-19 on Jan. 13. She said IU contact tracing never called her. However, the Indiana Department of Health sent her a survey through a text asking her to identify her school, address and close contacts.

Hicks listed her roommate and friends she had recently spent time with as close contacts. Her roommate also received an IDOH survey to fill out regarding her symptoms, but never received a call from IU contact tracing.

“I don’t think she was contacted by IU at all,” Hicks said.

IU emailed Hicks a survey asking if she was exposed to COVID-19 on campus, if she was contacted by the IDOH and if she had any symptoms.

After five days, Hicks said she went back to classes. Despite not receiving a negative COVID-19 test, an IU email advised her to return to classes after five days if she was symptom-free. 

Hicks said she was confused about who is considered a close contact for in-person classes. She didn’t list any of her professors or classmates as close contacts.

“It also doesn’t seem like IU is really reaching out too much,” Hicks said. “They didn’t directly ask me about my close contacts.”

IU freshman Olivia Seibert lives in Forest Quadrangle. She tested positive for COVID-19 on Jan. 25. IU contact tracing called her about a day later for information about when her symptoms started and where she had been a couple days previously, she said.

Seibert said she thought it was odd her friend, listed as a close contact, was called by contact tracing, but not advised to get tested. 

“They just suggested if she started to have symptoms to get tested, but that she could just carry on as usual,” she said. 

IU Chief Health Officer Aaron Carroll said contact tracing is facing an increased volume of COVID-19 cases this semester.

“We just had more positive cases in January than almost any corresponding month during the pandemic,” Carroll said.

Carroll said IU has to prioritize calling those with positive COVID-19 tests in congregate living such as dorms and Greek housing first and sending automated messages to people immediately.

“It’s a high stress, never-ending job,” Carroll said. “They work pretty hard.”

Carroll said the primary goal is outbreak management, which is most likely in congregate living. Those who might have a significant number of contacts, like in IU Athletics, are also prioritized, Carroll said.

“Everybody gets information the second we know about a positive,” Carroll said. “We do the talking less to inform them about what to do and how to take care of themselves, we just need to talk to them about how many contacts they might have had.”

Phone calls from contact tracers will take longer to receive than automated messages, he said. 

“Even if we don’t get to them with a phone call quite as fast, they still have the information they need,” he said.

According to the CDC, the Omicron variant spreads more easily than other variations of COVID-19. The median incubation period for the Omicron variant, in a study by the CDC, was approximately three days.

“There’s no question that with Omicron we’re playing catch-up,” Carroll said.

The vast majority of transmission comes from household contacts, Carroll said. Many other transmissions come from parties, bars and restaurants, he said. 

“Classroom transmissions are just rare,” Carroll said. “For most people, class is not even close to the most risky thing they do.”

Carroll said it’s difficult to stay ahead of the spread because the tools to manage other variants of COVID-19 don’t work as well with the fast-paced Omicron.

“We’re trying to be as nimble as possible and keep risk to a minimum,” Carroll said. “We can’t test our way out of this one.”

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