UO partners with Lane County in managing COVID-19 cases

COVID test materials

To help manage and respond to COVID-19 cases in the UO campus community, the university is developing extensive protocols for notifying, isolating and accommodating people who test positive, as well as communicating about cases with the wider community.

The university deployed the new protocols, as they relate to students, when cases of COVID-19 surfaced in the UO community, starting in mid-June, emanating primarily through a college-age coronavirus “cluster” in Lane County.

Public health employees and other experts make up the UO case management team, which works hand in hand with Lane County Public Health to help stop the spread of the virus locally. The team helps those who test positive or who may have been exposed to the virus to self-isolate and also informs the wider community about cases, according to Angela Long, director of public health practices at University Health Services, who leads the case management team.

The case management team is a branch of the UO incident management team’s operations section.

“We follow the lead of Lane County Public Health as we report on cases in the greater UO community,” Long said. “This enables us to fulfill the university’s obligation to accurately report positive cases of students, employees and other affiliated individuals.”

The university will work with the public health authorities in Multnomah and Coos counties to report potential UO-affiliated cases as well.

The UO reports known positive cases in the COVID-19 update email sent to faculty, staff and students and posted on a public website. The university notes the number of known cases involving students who have tested positive or are presumptive positives for COVID-19.

Also, if a student or employee who is positive is known to have accessed university facilities within the last 14 days, the university will report that information.

The case management team works to protect identifiable information on students and employees in what it reports publicly, in accordance with medical and higher education privacy laws. The university does not provide any detailed information about individuals who have tested positive, such as age or affiliation with a particular group, unless the local health authority determines there is a public health benefit to releasing that information.

“We’re giving enough information so people can understand what’s going on and potentially change their behaviors, but we are avoiding releasing any personally identifying information,” Long said. “We are required to protect the privacy of individuals because this is a health matter.”

Under the protocols, if there is a heightened risk to specific individuals, the university and Lane County will release more information. That includes if any cluster of cases is identified that’s tied to a specific location, building, group or workplace. The county defines a cluster as 10 or more positive cases connected to each other or five or more interconnected cases related through a workplace.

“We are 100 percent transparent within the limitations of medical privacy laws,” said Lane County Health and Human Services Public Information Officer Jason Davis. “We are not interested in sharing information that’s really of no use to you or that won’t help inform your decision-making or your behavior.”

So what happens if you test positive for COVID-19 in Lane County?

You typically will receive a phone call from a public health nurse within 24 hours, according to Lane County’s Davis.

The calls have two primary purposes, Davis said: to recommend that the positive patient isolate and to ask if the patient need assistance doing that, and to get information about anyone with whom the patient has been in close proximity in the past 48 hours and who may have been exposed to the virus.

“There’s no judgement, ever. We ask that they isolate and watch their symptoms,” Davis said. “We do care about your individual case, but our priority is that we want to isolate the virus in the interest of the wider community.”

Lane County contact tracers will then reach out to each individual who was exposed to COVID-19 by the infected person. Without identifying the person who exposed them, the contact tracers educate them about why they are being contacted, find out if they are experiencing symptoms and then recommend they quarantine for 14 days.

One regular source of confusion is that Lane County does not publicly report the total number of people who have been contacted by tracers, known as “persons under monitoring,” but confirmed or presumptive COVID-19 cases only. The university mirrors that approach for the UO community. 

Persons under monitoring are contacted every day by Lane County Public Health to check on their symptoms during their 14-day quarantine period.

Contact tracing “is about trying to outrun the virus,” Davis said. “People sometimes have a distrust about who we are and what we’re doing and why when we call …. The best way to get people to cooperate is to get them information and an explanation of the process in a palatable way.”

The UO’s case management team, meanwhile, receives information from the county on positive cases and determines how to support those who are positive for COVID-19, in addition to communicating about these cases to the campus community to help others stay safe.

The team is made up of employees from University Health Services, housing, human resources, the Office of the Dean of Students, University Communications and the Office of the General Counsel. Even within that team, information about cases is shared in a way that protects individuals’ privacy.

A group of UO students, dubbed the Corona Corps, also began assisting Lane County with contact tracing on July 1. If needed, that group could be scaled up to take responsibility for up to 500 contacts a day, a potential major assist to Lane County if positive cases continue to climb into the fall.

The Lane County college-age clusters clearly demonstrated the importance of contact tracing, Davis and Long agreed. For all other positive cases in Lane County so far, the infected person has exposed an average of four other people to the virus. In the college-age cluster, 28 people, on average, were exposed by each case.

The fact that the college-age cluster has significantly slowed down, according to Lane County, is a testament to both UO student behavior change and the processes and supports that have been put in place by the university, Long said.

“I’m heartened by the self-efficacy of our students in getting tested and in reaching out to their friends and contacts about their positive tests, even outside the formal contact tracing process,” Long said. “We want to see that continue, in addition to taking more of the upfront preventative measures.”

Long says the best prevention remains wearing face coverings, staying six feet apart, not gathering in groups, not sharing drink or vapes and staying home if you feel sick.

The contact tracing system, if it works effectively, means people should not be exposed to a known COVID-19 case without learning about it and being able to take steps to keep themselves and other safe, Davis said.

The system “relies on how well your infected friend remembers you and if they’re able to tell us about that contact,” he said.

By Saul Hubbard, University Communications