How the Boise State Public Health Office has managed contact tracing throughout the pandemic

Students walking through the Boise State SUB, contact tracing.
Photo by Claire Keener

The Boise State Public Health Office is tasked with managing the university’s COVID-19 contact tracing, a service that is constantly changing to fit student needs.

Contact tracing efforts by the Public Health Office began back in the summer of 2020 in anticipation for the new academic year. 

Back then, the City of Boise had already enacted contact tracing efforts through its local health department. However, the department was soon overrun with an overwhelming amount of work. 

In response to the growing need for accessible contact tracing guidance for students, Public Health launched its own contact tracing team for the university.

According to Maureen Welcker, senior public health officer for Boise State Public Health, the university recognized the need to expand contact tracing beyond the local level as early as the summer of 2020.

Students walking through the Boise State SUB, contact tracing.
[Photo of students walking through the Boise State Student Union Building (SUB)]
Photo by Claire Keener | The Arbiter

“Our campus community was having questions about what to do when they did test positive or what to do if they thought they may have been exposed to COVID-19 … We noticed that there was a need to be able to provide that resource for our campus community,” Welcker said.

The university’s contact tracing team works with Central District Health to closely follow CDC guidelines, which define who and when someone should be contacted once a positive COVID test has been reported.

When a Boise State student reports a positive COVID test, the Public Health Office contacts the student and guides them through specific tracing procedures.

Haidyn Jones, a sophomore double majoring in media arts and business, received a call from Public Health after testing positive for COVID earlier in the 2021 fall semester.

“The way that they informed me is they just called me and they told me that I tested positive, and they immediately asked for anyone I had been in contact with in the past week,” Jones said. 

The goal of contact tracing is to identify which individuals the student has been in close proximity to during their infectious period, which is considered to start two days prior to either the start of symptoms or a positive COVID test.

However, determining who exactly is considered “exposed” to the virus can be a complicated process.

In order to be contacted by Public Health, a student must have been in close proximity to  COVID- positive student during their infectious period and have also been less than 6 feet apart in distance for more than 15 minutes.

“This is sort of why we exist because it really is challenging to figure out a lot of these dates and times and whatnot,” Welcker said.

Fortunately, more straightforward ways of determining who to contact have been implemented by the university since the summer of 2020.

To further aid in the process of contact tracing, Public Health designed a way to keep track of student seating. This approach was meant to reduce the number of people needing to self-isolate and help the contact tracing team determine who might have been exposed to COVID.

“Our students, and even our employees, don’t always know the person they’re sitting next to,” Welcker said. “They don’t necessarily know that person’s last name, or how to spell their name, or any of the details that we might need in order to be able to reach out to those individuals.”

Their first attempt at tracking seating in the classroom required students to log in their seat number daily for every class, which Welcker said was not very effective.

“We stopped doing that because we were finding that that was a pretty big burden to students, in the sense that we were finding that students were forgetting to do it every time,” Welcker said.

The solution was to set up mandatory seating in classrooms so that once seating was logged at the start of the semester, the contact tracing team would have an accurate estimate of who each student interacted with on a regular basis.

Aside from figuring out who to contact, there are also guidelines in place for who exactly is asked to quarantine or get tested for COVID.

“They emailed my roommates, and the ones who were vaccinated didn’t have to go in for a COVID test, but the ones that were unvaccinated had to get tested,” Jones said.

The contact tracing guidelines state that students who are fully vaccinated are not required to test nor quarantine even if exposed to COVID.

“I didn’t think that people who were vaccinated wouldn’t be required to test. I thought they would make everyone test. So that was something that surprised me,” Jones said.

According to Jones, part of Public Health’s efforts to contact her included checking in on her through email twice per day while in isolation housing. They also sent a daily health survey asking about temperature, symptoms and other concerns.

“They were calling and emailing super frequently,” Jones said. “I definitely felt supported.”

As COVID numbers decline among the Boise State community, Welcker emphasized the importance of continuing contact tracing efforts to maximize student health and safety.

Planning for next year’s contact tracing efforts requires Public Health to keep a close eye on Boise State’s COVID numbers and also Ada County’s as a whole.

“We’re constantly looking at numbers, constantly evaluating where things are at because you know, we want COVID to be gone just like everybody else,” Welcker said. “We are moving in a very good direction, and we will adjust our protocols as soon as we feel that we’re in a place where we can do so.”

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