Dear St. Thomas faculty and staff,
As we move toward fall semester and the return of many students, faculty, and staff to St. Thomas, I want to share details on how we will manage, track, and report COVID-19 cases on campus. While we will do all we can to help minimize cases, we can’t expect campus to be COVID-free with a community of our size. Please familiarize yourself with the details in this letter, and let your dean or supervisor know if you have questions; we’ll be continually working to get you the information you need.
Navigate campus as you would navigate the larger community
Because we have community spread of COVID-19 (locally, in Minnesota, and nationally), public health experts tell us we need to navigate the world as if coronavirus is everywhere, and anyone we encounter could be a carrier. That means taking all health and safety protocols seriously: frequent hand washing, social distancing, masking, respiratory etiquette, wiping down surfaces you touch, and staying home if you’re sick. If you follow these protocols, you will reduce your risk.
What do we mean by exposure?
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Minnesota Department of Health (MDH), individuals have a known exposure if they have had “close contact” with an individual who has a confirmed case of COVID-19. Close contact is defined as being within six feet of someone for more than 15 minutes up to two days before they began experiencing symptoms, until the time they entered isolation. If you have had close contact with someone who has tested positive, you will need to quarantine for 14 days and self-monitor for symptoms, and/or get tested. Being in the same building or even the same room as someone who has tested positive is not considered a known exposure if you maintained social distancing and if other health and safety protocols were followed.
Quarantine and isolation
Quarantine and isolation are two different things, and the distinction is important. Quarantine is for individuals who are feeling sick (but do not have a positive test result) or who have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive. Isolation is for individuals who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 (tested positive). We will have both quarantine and isolation space available on campus for resident students who are unable to return home. More details on these two terms are available in the Campus Preparedness Plan.
Testing and timing
Anyone experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 should stay home. This is one of the most important things you can do to protect our community. If you start feeling sick, go home as soon as possible, consult with your health care provider, and, if advised, get tested. Please don’t tough it out!
As you likely know, there is a lag between getting tested and getting test results. Tests at our Center for Well-Being are currently being turned around within 72 hours. Tests results through your provider may take longer. It’s important to stay in quarantine until your test results come back, even if you start feeling better. We are prioritizing student testing at the Center for Well-Being. Employees should use their health care providers, who are also better positioned to follow up with an employee’s health care concerns.
The lag time means that – in the case of a positive result – by the time our contact tracing team starts its work and those who have had close contact are notified, the person who has tested positive is already at home, and members of the campus community are not at further risk of exposure. The purpose of contact tracing is to avoid – as much as possible – further spread. Our contact tracers will be focusing on students, faculty, and staff who are spending time on campus; students who are learning remotely or employees who are working remotely will not be part of our contact tracing efforts but will be included, as needed, in Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) contact tracing efforts.
The lag time between testing and test results also means the special cleaning our Facilities Services team will do as an extra precaution when it gets notice of a confirmed case may not take place for 3 or more days after the person who has been diagnosed with COVID-19 has left campus. Our daily cleaning is intended to be sufficient, but please follow health and safety protocols. Clean in and clean out of any shared spaces you use.
Some universities are planning widespread testing (surveillance testing) of community members; MDH advises against this. Surveillance testing requires significant use of limited resources and raises equity, ethics, and capacity concerns among public health officials. In addition, surveillance testing gives a snapshot of a situation, which may be different by the time results are returned. We will test asymptomatic individuals only if we determine certain groups could have a higher exposure risk; this could include, for example, residence hall floors or work spaces with related cases.
Notifications and Reporting
The goal of contact tracing is to mitigate risk and change behavior. Our contact tracing system (click on “Contact Tracing Overview”) will help ensure those at elevated risk are notified. We will also notify those who can assist our contact tracers, such as faculty who can provide seating charts and other helpful information about classroom interactions.
If you have not been in close contact with a confirmed case (based on the definition above), your risk is not considered elevated, and you should continue to take the same general daily precautions: six feet distancing, wearing a face covering, washing hands, cleaning spaces, etc. We will be transparent about cases on campus within the limits of privacy laws and regulations. Please remember confidentiality of health information is important, and it’s essential that someone’s name or other information that would identify the person is not shared.
To help keep the community updated about the impact of COVID-19 on campus, the University will provide a weekly report of campus cases starting September 14 on OneStThomas. The report will include the total reported cases for the prior week, whether the reported cases involve students or faculty/staff, and on which campus the impacted individual primarily works or learns. When three (3) or more campus cases are determined to be connected or presumptively connected (e.g. connected in time and building location) such information will be noted in the weekly report. Other interpretive comments may also be included. To protect privacy, when a number is 10 or less, the report will indicate a range of 1-5 or 6-10 rather than the precise number. St. Thomas will also consult with MDH about campus cases and possible surges. St. Thomas may send a notification to part or all of the campus community if MDH advises that there are public health considerations that warrant a timely notification to community members.
As a reminder, all community members are expected to self-report. Employees should self-report through this link available on the COVID-19 OneStThomas site for staff. Students should self-report through this link available on the COVID-19 OneStThomas site for students.
Special Guidance for Faculty
To help you respond to cases – specifically those with students – we’ve prepared a document with more detailed guidance. It is posted on the COVID-19 Faculty Resources OneStThomas site (click on “Faculty Guidance on Responding to COVID-19 Cases”). If you have questions about responding to a particular case, you can contact your dean or Wendy Wyatt in the vice provost’s office. For general questions, you may contact Luis de Zengotita in the Center for Well-Being, who will direct your question to the appropriate person.
A Constantly Evolving Situation
Beginning in the earliest days of responding to COVID-19 – way back in January 2020 – we learned that things can change incredibly quickly and that we need to engage in a process of continual analysis. Please be assured we are looking at the situation daily and will make adjustments as needed. Many of you have asked about metrics that would prompt us to move again to online learning again and to ask resident students to return home. Our ability to effectively deal with cases on campus includes a number of interrelated factors, and we will soon update our Campus Preparedness Plan’s surge planning section with additional information that will be considered in making a decision to change operations. There is, however, no precise formula or answer. Such decisions will be made based on all the available information.
I continue to be grateful for all of the energy and expertise that people from across campus have invested in educating our students during a global pandemic. We have overcome many significant obstacles during the last 7 months, and I know we’ll face many others. But together we will get through this. A most earnest thanks for all you do.
Richard Plumb, Ph.D.
Executive Vice President and Provost