In less than a month, more than 1,300 students at the university of Missouri have tested positive for the coronavirus. Case investigation and contact tracing are key components of controlling the outbreak, but students say the university is falling behind.
When Sami Sandt first tested positive for the coronavirus on September 2nd, she decided she would quarantine in her apartment. The 20-year-old junior lives at Campus Lodge, a university-owned housing complex.
“So I have my own room and bathroom so I didn’t think that me staying there would be a problem because I did have my own space,” Sandt explained.
The day she reported her case to the university, Sandt says she got a call from a Residential Life representative. Sandt says she was told she’d be receiving another call in the next 24 hours about moving to an MU isolation unit.
It wasn't until September 8, six days after she reported her positive test to the university, and nine days after she started isolating, that Sandt got a call from Residential Life. The representative told her she now needed to move to the Tiger Hotel.
In an email, MU spokesperson Christian Basi says the university tried to reach Sandt by phone on the 2nd, but she didn’t pick up. He says the university continued calling. But Sandt says she only had one missed call before the 8th, from a number with a Chesterfield, Missouri area code.
September 8 is also when Sandt finally got a call from a case investigator, this time with a Denver area code.
“She seemed like she was really with it and she knew what was going on, which was really nice because I felt like I just had a lot of ambiguity with all of my emails and my phone calls,” Sandt said.
At that point, after nine days in quarantine, Sandt packed her things, and got on a chartered bus to the hotel.
Students share experiences across social media
Sandt’s complaints aren’t unique. Students have shared stories across social media of inconsistent or sporadic communication from the university, as well as missing meals.
— sami sandt (@samisandt) September 9, 2020
In an interview with NPR’s Here & Now, MU Chancellor Mun Choi acknowledged that students had missed meals.
“When I hear that our students are not getting the meals, especially when they’re in such a vulnerable state, it really does break my heart," Choi said. "I’ve asked all of our folks to redouble their efforts.”
Choi says when he and his team were preparing for the semester, they did so not knowing how the situation would evolve.
Other students who tested positive told KBIA they had delays ranging from five days to a week between testing positive and hearing from a university case investigator.
Basi says as of Thursday, the contact tracing team is contacting individuals within 2 days, and depending on the future caseload, that could decrease to 24 hours.
MU has its own team of case investigators and contact tracers, which operates in coordination with the Columbia/Boone County Public Health and Human services Department.
Health director Stephanie Browning says timely case investigation and contact tracing are key to controlling infectious diseases. “The delays are not allowing us to get people into isolation and quarantine and get their needs met and reduce that community transmission risk," Browning explained.
Browning says her department has faced delays of four or five days in reaching people who test positive amid the spike in cases since mid-August.
While the university has its own team, two of the six students who spoke with KBIA reported being contacted by case investigators from the health department. Browning confirmed the department has jumped in to help the university directly in the past.
She says her department has hired more staff with CARES act funding to resolve her department’s delays. But case investigation requires more training than contact tracing.
“It’s a much more in-depth call because you’re finding out what symptoms they have, you’re finding out their infectious period, you’re identifying their contacts during that period," Browning said.
The university is currently advertising two additional full-time case investigator positions. The student health center’s online staff directory lists 10 contact tracers and four case investigators.
Student CARE Team under pressure
Despite the two-day delay Basi cited for case investigators reaching students, MU’s online guide for students who test positive leaves a wider window. It says students should contact the university’s CARE Team if they haven’t heard from a case investigator after eight days.
The CARE Team is the first point of contact for most students who test positive. It's made up of a group of staff from the division of student affairs and volunteers from other departments. The students who spoke with KBIA reported positive interactions with CARE Team members, who are assigned to check in on students’ needs throughout the isolation period.
A source involved with the team, who asked to speak anonymously for fear of retribution, said staff have been working around the clock to keep up with the spike in cases. They say the staff are overworked and carrying the emotional weight of accounting for students put in this position by what they describe as the university’s planning and policy failures.
The source says Choi has pressured the division to streamline the process of releasing students from isolation units, in order to maintain the appearance that the outbreak is under control.
Experiences undermine confidence in MU's plans
Sandt, who served as a summer welcome leader for incoming first-years, says she kept herself informed of the university's COVID-19 policies and precautions. But she says her experience after testing positive undermines the idea the university was ready to bring students back.
“I think it’s very blatantly obvious that the administration does not care and they were not prepared even closely to the way they said they were over the summer,” Sandt said.
After quarantining in her apartment for six days, and at the Tiger Hotel for three nights, Sandt’s case investigator finally gave her the go ahead to leave isolation September 11.
At that point, it had been nine days since Sandt reported her positive test to the university, and 11 after she first started showing symptoms.