GW should strengthen its contact tracing system

Administrators brought students back to campus this fall with the promise that they would be able to attend classes safely. But every week, I listen to my friends bring up another email informing them that someone in one of their classes tested positive. As coronavirus cases continue to be diagnosed on campus, GW’s contact tracing proves insufficient.

Since August, the University has recorded nearly 300 positive cases, and the virus has continued to spread throughout the school year. While the threat of infection becomes greater, students have reported that the University’s contract tracing system has left out vital information like the time and location of potential exposures. GW needs to reconstruct its contact tracing system because students’ health is in jeopardy.

Officials have created an ambiguous policy and procedure for contact tracing when a student tests positive. GW Occupational Health sends a vague email to students, which sometimes only reveals that an unidentified person tested positive and was near them at some point in time. This discourages students from taking the risk seriously because they don’t have specific information about their contact with an infectious person. Vaccinated students are told to get tested within three to five days of receiving the email – but there are no follow-up measures to ensure students are getting tested after.

The University’s contact tracing program also unfairly places professors at risk of getting COVID-19 from their students. The contract tracing confidentiality policy means professors are not permitted to know the identity of a student in their class who has tested positive. This leaves professors questioning which class  could potentially have a positive coronavirus case. They can no longer determine what environments are the least safe for them. They also have no knowledge of whether they have students in multiple classes testing positive.

Professors have also reported learning from their students that they have tested positive and never receiving word from CCST. The contract tracers failing to inform professors in a timely manner or at all limits the professors’ ability to ensure students are coming to a safe classroom. It is vital that more information be disclosed to protect the health of the student body and the faculty when there is a life-threatening disease spreading.

GW has not taken enough action to respond to the threat of students cohabiting in an environment that is conducive to the spread of the coronavirus. At the beginning of the pandemic, college campuses experienced infection rates that were more than twice the national average. Today, colleges around the country have been reporting increases in cases and many have responded by adjusting their management of the coronavirus. Schools have decided to move some classes online, begun weekly testing and reduced capacity in indoor recreational areas.

Nearly all of GW’s student body is vaccinated, but this does not ensure that students are completely safe from contracting the coronavirus, as evidenced by the nearly 300 cases on campus in the past two months. No vaccine is completely effective and the vaccinated are still at risk. In trials for the vaccine, rates of protection against coronavirus infection varied from 50 to 95 percent – but that was before the Delta variant drove an uptick in breakthrough infections among vaccinated people. Furthermore, GW is located in a city, which means that students are exposed to many more people other than just their peers. Only about 60 percent of people in D.C. are fully vaccinated, so the risk of getting coronavirus is not as low as it would be if students were living in a bubble on campus.

Students would benefit from a well-resourced and efficient contact tracing system. If the University feels overwhelmed with the current demand then they must hire more staff. Many universities also now offer courses to educate students on how to contact trace which allows more hands on deck in their campuses’ contact tracing systems. Although this can be costly, it is likely cheaper than the alternative of switching to online classes and lowering tuition once again. This would also be funding a program that is affecting the entire student body and would make the University more attentive to student needs.

Privacy is important, but protecting the lives of students is paramount. GW has barred professors from asking whether students have been vaccinated against the coronavirus. Contract tracers should at least ask students if they can disclose their names to professors so that they are able to make decisions about each individual class and monitor them accordingly. They will be able to decide if they must switch their methods of class interaction if they learn of problematic positivity rates in one of their classes.

GW should alter its coronavirus instructions to encourage students to disclose positive test results to all their professors immediately after receiving their positive result. This way, professors can alert their class and make decisions on potential next steps as soon as possible.

Students need to be protected from exposure to the coronavirus in the most effective way possible – the CCST must tell students the time and date of potential exposures.

If GW does not clean up its act, students may be faced with the prospect of packing up their belongings and returning home for another year of online learning. Contact tracing is a public health strategy that has been utilized for years to stop the spread of viruses and GW should understand its importance in its action plan against the spread of coronavirus.

Jane Cameron, a rising junior majoring in journalism and mass communication, is an opinions writer.

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