MU says COVID-19 contact tracing occurs within two days, but students indicate otherwise

MU students report delays in contact tracing, as well as other communication issues.

After reporting a positive COVID-19 test result Sept. 5, MU freshman Maya Kitchens has yet to be reached by a contact tracer.

Kitchens is one of many students to experience communication conflicts with the university, particularly delayed responses from MU contact tracers. Since campus reopened in August, there have been over a thousand reported COVID-19 student cases at MU, which has led to a high volume of work for contact tracers.

When asked if contact tracing is behind at the university, MU spokesperson Christian Basi said that contact tracers are connecting with students within one to two days.

“We certainly would like for it to be less and we’re continuing to work hard at reducing it, but it also depends on the number of new cases that come in each day,” Basi said in an email.

As of Thursday, contact tracing is five or six days behind at the county level, according to Ashton Day, a health educator at the Columbia/Boone County Department of Public Health and Human Services. Day also explained that MU’s contact tracing is separate from the county. This partnership, she said, was created in anticipation of the students returning to campus.

“[MU conducting its own contact tracing] helps share the load then, and it makes it a little easier in terms of contact tracing and case investigation because as a university, they have access to everyone’s contact information through email,” Day said.

Some students believe that MU contact tracing is severely delayed. For example, a contact tracer did not reach out to Kitchens after one of her friends reported a COVID-19 infection Sept. 2, five days after Kitchens had been in close proximity to her friend.

Kitchens, who believed she had been exposed to the virus, called the MU Student Health Center to ask about receiving a coronavirus test Sept. 3. She was denied a test, despite the fact that she was also experiencing a cough.

“I didn’t know I was positive,” Kitchens said. “Not getting tested … and not knowing if you’re positive for five days, that’s five days worth of people that you’ve been exposing, and that’s just not good.”

Her cough quickly disappeared and she had already booked a plane flight for Sept. 4 to spend Labor Day weekend at home in Birmingham, Ala., so she continued with her holiday plans. She boarded the plane and flew home.

“I got home and my mom made me get tested, and I tested positive,” Kitchens said.

Kitchens received her positive test result Sept. 5 and reported it to the university immediately. She also made sure to notify her friends and others with whom she had been in contact, in case they were not notified by the university.

“It’s up to the students to report to their friends if they’ve been in contact,” Kitchens said. “The university isn’t going to tell you. We’re the ones who are responsible for letting people know that we have coronavirus.”

Though she has not been reached by a contact tracer, she received phone calls from both the Department of Residential Life and the Student Health Center. Residential Life called to make sure that she had living accommodations outside of her residence hall. The Student Health Center told Kitchens that she would be connected with a contact tracer by Sept. 8 — which never happened.

Kitchens believes the lack of communication with MU contact tracers is concerning since infected students might unknowingly spread the virus. She also thinks that exposed students should be allowed access to tests.

“You could just go out into the world and just spread it, and you have no idea,” Kitchens said. “Like you’re going into elevators and touching buttons, and you’re walking around. For me, I was positive and I got on a plane and I didn’t know. My cough kind of went away before I got on the plane, otherwise, I would have canceled my trip.”

Kitchens is currently quarantining at home in Alabama, with plans to return to campus Thursday. She had to contact MU to find out for how long she was required to quarantine since she says that no one had given her instructions.

Once she called, the Student Health Center told Kitchens to quarantine for 10 days instead of 14. She still plans to quarantine for two full weeks, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently recommends.

“I think 10 days is substantial,” said MU freshman Chloe Lewis, who also had to quarantine after contracting COVID-19. “I know that [the university] would not allow this unless it was an effective time period.”

Lewis does not recall ever being contacted by an MU contact tracer. Her quarantine period ended Sept. 5.

Kitchens’ friend Emma McCormick, another MU freshman, also experienced a delay with contact tracing. McCormick tested positive for COVID-19 Aug. 31 and reported the result to MU the same day. The next morning, Residential Life and the Student Health Center called. However, it took several days for contact tracers to reach her.

“I was answering like every random number on my phone, which was so annoying, and then it wasn’t until Friday night [Sept. 4] that a contact tracer called me,” McCormick said. “And it was for my friend that had tested positive [on Aug. 30].”

McCormick explained to the contact tracer that she had already been aware of her exposure from her friend and that she had already tested positive for COVID-19. She also told the contact tracer that it had already been almost a week since she received her test result, yet she still had not heard from her own contact tracer.

“They were like, ‘Well, we don’t really know, but it should be soon,’” McCormick said.

McCormick’s contact tracer called her the next morning. McCormick provided the names of the people she may have exposed, which were a few friends who were already quarantining due to positive coronavirus test results.

“[The contact tracer] didn’t ask for their phone numbers or anything, which I thought was weird,” McCormick said.

McCormick added that the friends she named had not been contacted about their possible exposure.

“The contact tracing was super delayed,” she said. “I kept getting told that I was going to get a case investigator, but never did.”

McCormick also said that her friend Kate Taylor, an MU freshman, had not been reached by a contact tracer or case investigator after testing positive for COVID-19. This prompted Taylor to call several different offices and she learned that MU had no record of her positive test result. By this time, Taylor had completed her quarantine period and needed a release form in order to return to campus.

“After the whole ‘we lost your test,’ kind of thing, [Kate] just got a release form in her email, so it was kind of sketchy,” McCormick said.

Concerned about obtaining her own release form, McCormick, who lives in Columbia, reached out to the Boone County health department.

“For me, I really had a smooth experience except for no one contacting me,” McCormick said. “I feel like if I wouldn’t have reached out to Boone County, I would never have been released either.”

Edited by Lucy Caile|lcaile@themaneater.com

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