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So far, Princeton’s contact tracing reveals no on-campus transmission

Amidst student anxiety, a look at the University’s contact tracing protocols

<h5>A COVID-19 saliva test taken on campus</h5>
<h6>Zachary Shevin / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
A COVID-19 saliva test taken on campus
Zachary Shevin / The Daily Princetonian

With a return to in-person residential life, some community members are looking to Princeton’s promise of rigorous COVID-19 safety measures for an assurance of safety — including the University’s pledge in late August to maintain a “robust contact tracing protocol” this fall.

One week into classes, some students have already gone through that contact tracing process.

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Isabel Rodrigues ’23 was contacted by a University contact tracer via email and voicemail less than 24 hours after her arrival to campus on Aug. 19 while she was training to be an Outdoor Action leader. 

With the subject line “Immunization Verified,” the email informed her that University Health Services (UHS) had been “made aware that you have either traveled to a high-risk location or been in close contact with an individual suspected of having COVID-19.” 

Rodrigues is a Co-Head Copy Editor for The Daily Princetonian.

Knowing that she had not traveled beyond Mercer County, Rodrigues said she assumed someone in her training pod had tested positive for the virus — but the email did not name the individual, citing confidentiality rules.

“It was definitely kind of alarming to come to campus and immediately be contact-traced,” Rodrigues said in an interview with the ‘Prince’. “You just don’t expect it to be literally the first day that you’re back.” 

Because Rodrigues is vaccinated, she was told in the email obtained by the ‘Prince’ that while she did not have to quarantine and could “access campus as scheduled,” she did have to adhere to certain additional restrictions and “self-monitor” any symptoms. 

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The restrictions were set for a 10-day period and required her to complete the daily symptom tracker on the TigerSafe App, “keep six feet of distance from others at all times,” wear a face covering “at all times” on campus, and “avoid common areas.” 

But those guidelines have felt confusing and malleable at times, said one senior who the ‘Prince’ verified had been contact-traced by the University. The senior requested to remain anonymous due to medical privacy concerns.

A day after arriving to campus, the senior hosted a close friend in their dorm room unmasked, assuming the friend had already tested negative. 

The following morning, the friend contacted them to say they had tested positive, and by 2 p.m. that afternoon, the senior had received an email from the University nearly identical to the one Rodrigues had received over a week earlier. The senior said that from the subject line, “I probably wouldn’t have realized it’s a contact tracing email.” 

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“I remember being really freaked out,” the senior told the ‘Prince.’ Out of an abundance of concern, they submitted two additional COVID-19 tests, though they were not required to do so, and tested negative on both. The senior said a massive point of relief has been the University’s quick turnaround in test results, usually less than 24 hours.

“I can’t tell if their guidelines are strict rules or not,” the senior said of the contact tracing email in a phone interview, saying they were currently sitting outdoors on campus, with no one nearby, with their mask half-off — technically a violation. “The guidelines for every aspect of our lives right now are very vague.” 

So far, “based on contact tracing and analysis,” viral transmission at the University does not seem to be an issue, according to Deputy University Spokesperson Michael Hotchkiss.

“None of the COVID cases identified on campus thus far has resulted from transmission on campus,” he previously told the ‘Prince’. 

Still, the University’s COVID-19 dashboard showed a shift between Aug. 25 and Sept. 1 from “low” to “moderate” risk status. Hotchkiss said in an email Thursday that the change will not affect campus COVID-19 policies at this time. 

According to Hotchkiss, the case rate on campus is “well within the anticipated range,” but “remains high in the surrounding area.” The shift to “moderate” risk, he said, can be explained by the increase in campus population and the number of in-person activities that have taken place.

Sixteen percent of the dorms allocated for students who are isolating after a positive test result are full as of Sept. 2, according to the University COVID-19 dashboard. Vaccination rates, meanwhile, reached approximately 98 percent for the undergraduate student body and approximately 96 percent for employees as of Sept. 5.

At this time, the University’s “analysis team” — the team of scientists and health professionals working to assess transmission risk on a weekly basis —  recommends “emphasizing compliance with the face coverings and testing policies,” according to Hotchkiss.

How does contact tracing by the University work? 

A positive test by a University community member, either through the University’s asymptomatic testing system or one conducted off-campus, immediately triggers the UHS contact tracing protocol.

The team’s goal, per Hotchkiss, is to contact-trace every case within 24 hours of the result release. The team is “successful in doing so in more than 99 percent of cases,” he said.

In the contact tracing process, the person who tested positive for COVID-19 is interviewed and asked to identify close contacts from the 48 hours before symptom onset or the 48 hours before the test date of the asymptomatic positive result, depending on the situation. 

“Close contacts” are defined as “those who have been within 6 feet of the positive case for more than 15 cumulative minutes in a 24 hour period.”

These criteria are determined by the UHS Global and Community Health team on behalf of the Princeton Municipal Health Department, in accordance with guidance and definitions from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the New Jersey Department of Health. 

“Our experienced contact tracers guide the person who tested positive through a series of questions to boost their memory and identify all close contacts,” Hotchkiss wrote. 

UHS then contacts all those “close contacts” and informs them that they have been exposed to an ill community member. 

“All the personal information about the positive case is kept confidential,” Hotchkiss said. 

The University mandates “close contacts'' who are unvaccinated quarantine and contact UHS if they develop any symptoms. Those who are vaccinated “can still circulate on campus without restrictions,” but must participate in twice-weekly testing for the week after the exposure and “increased masking and self-monitoring for 10 days after their exposure.” 

University policy seems to indicate that individuals who learn independently of the University that they had been in contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19 — but are not classified as a “close contact” by UHS criteria or did not wind up on a list of “close contacts” due to inaccurate or incomplete information — need not self-quarantine or self-isolate.

“Individuals who are not contacted do not need to self-quarantine or self-isolate because they do not meet the criteria for close contacts,” Hotchkiss explained.

Addressing questions about the University’s decision to limit sharing information about a positive test to “close contacts” only — as opposed to the entire zee group, for instance, of a student who tested positive — Hotchkiss said that “medical privacy rules limit the sharing of this information.” 

“Sharing information about a positive case with people and groups who are not close contacts as defined by federal and state guidance would not provide actionable information and could create confusion,” he said.

Students who wish to learn more about the contact tracing process can contact Dr. Irini Daskalaki, who leads the contact tracing team. Daskalaki is an infectious disease physician and public health expert who designed the University’s contact tracing, isolation, and quarantine program from the beginning of the pandemic, Hotchkiss explained. 

Daskalaki “provides training to all team members and leads daily case discussions with the contact tracers to improve their skills” and stays in “constant communication and collaboration” with state and local health officials.

Marie-Rose Sheinerman is a senior writer who has reported on COVID-19 policy, faculty controversy, sexual harassment allegations, major donors, campus protests, and more. She can be reached at ms78@princeton.edu or on Twitter at @rosesheinerman. 

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