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Contact Tracing Helps Prevent Campus Community Spread of COVID-19

  • Department of Medicine

You wear your face covering and wash your hands often. You maintain physical distancing and know where all of the hand sanitizing stations are in your building. But you hear a rumor that someone you know at the University might have tested positive and wonder: Am I at risk? How will I know? Should I quarantine? What now?

Enter contract tracing, one of the most important components in Pitt’s plan for helping to keep our community safe and stop the spread of COVID-19.

Since mid-March, University contact tracers have been diligently contacting people who had close contact with a Pitt employee or student who tested positive for or had symptoms of COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines close contact as having been within 6 feet of someone for 15 minutes or more with or without a mask, or hugging or embracing someone.

Who to contact

Students experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 or receiving a positive test should contact their campus’ Student Health Service:

  • Pittsburgh: 412-383-1800
  • Bradford:  814-362-5272
  • Greensburg: 724-635-5001
  • Johnstown: 814-269-7110

Faculty and staff at all campuses should call MyHealth @ Work at 412-647-4949.

“Contact tracing helps us to identify those who are at increased risk as a result of an exposure to someone known or presumed to have COVID-19,” said Elise Martin, a member of the COVID-19 Medical Response Office, assistant professor in the Department of Medicine and Division of Infectious Diseases and the associate medical director of infection prevention and hospital epidemiology for UPMC Presbyterian. “Quickly identifying and reaching out to close contacts is a powerful containment method that helps us to limit the spread of disease and keep our campuses safer and healthier.”

When a Pitt student experiences symptoms of COVID-19 —or if they are tested by a non-Pitt provider and receive a positive result—they must contact Student Health Service. Faculty and staff members who experience symptoms or receive a positive test result must contact MyHealth@Work and their dean, department chair or supervisor. In addition to receiving information about next steps and access to testing and care, if needed, the individual will be contacted by a contact tracer.

Contact Tracing 101

  • A contact tracer will ask you for the names of all people you have been in close contact with while you had symptoms, as well as 48 hours prior to your showing symptoms.
  • If any close contacts are associated with Pitt, a team at Student Health Services (students) and MyHealth@Work (faculty/staff) will contact them to inform them that they were in close contact with someone with COVID-19.
  • The names of those identified as close contacts who are not University members will be given to the health department in the county where the person resides. The county tracer will also contact you and will notify those people.
  • Your identity will be kept confidential.

What if I’m contacted?

The contact tracer will ask if you’re experiencing any symptoms and provide you with information about what you need to do next, including a 14-day quarantine.

What if I think someone in my classroom, residence hall or department has tested positive, but I’m not contacted?

If you have not been contacted by a contact tracer, the likelihood of transmission to you was determined to be low, based on limited contact with the individual. Provided you do not have symptoms, you may continue with your regular activities while continuing to follow precautions like wearing face coverings and physical distancing.

Ready to React

Student Health Services Director Marian Vanek says her team has been tracing contacts since mid-March. As her health educators get busy with other duties after the semester starts, she will continue to recruit tracers. Approximately 10 students from the School of Pharmacy recently joined her team.

Vanek says prevention is very powerful. “There are things we can do to protect ourselves and others, and we have an obligation to do that,” she said. “Wear a mask. Practice good hand hygiene. Maintain distance from people. Maintain your own health. If everyone does their part and observes those practices, we have a great chance of reducing the risk of spread on campus.”

Jay Frerotte, Pitt’s assistant vice chancellor of Environmental Health and Safety, said members of his staff are also contact tracers and are standing by ready to help around the clock.

“This has happened where someone is working the 3-11 p.m. night shift on a Saturday and they start feeling symptoms,” he said. “They call us, and we react. We have a very effective process for this.”

Frerotte says a person’s privacy is completely protected throughout the contact tracing protocol. The contacts will not be told with whom they came in contact. If a tracer runs into a problem because a person is not answering a cell phone, the tracer may have to call a person’s supervisor to get another contact number, but the tracer will not tell the supervisor the nature of the call.