Like the beginning of any other typical academic year, the level of excitement and energy around town has grown over the past week as more students move into Gainesville and we get closer to the official start of classes.
But obviously, this is no typical academic year.
This year’s back-to-school buzz is accompanied by a heavy dose of uncertainties that have come with the pandemic and the realization that so many of our routines, traditions and rites of passage are all “subject to change.” Especially at this stage of the pandemic, the question “what happens next?” looms. What happens when a case of COVID-19 is identified on campus? What happens to their contacts? What if a case is found in a residence hall or a Greek house?
To help relieve some of the anxieties related to knowing what happens next, let me walk you through the plans we have had in place since early May, which we have been building on around the clock since then.
When a student, or anyone for that matter, is reported as a case to the health department through the public health reporting system, our team, because of the unique partnership we have established with the health department, is also notified. Every day, we cross-reference the list of new cases with a master list of UF faculty, staff and students. If we find a match, and we do not already know about the case, we begin our contact investigation. The very first step, however, is to put the person diagnosed with COVID-19 into isolation. We then call their close contacts (those who have been within 6 feet for 15 minutes or longer), put them in quarantine and monitor them for signs of COVID-19 over the next two weeks. It is crucial for people to help us out with the contact investigation process by answering the investigator’s questions and following their advice.
When this happens and a person does not live in a residence hall or what we call a “congregate setting,” they isolate in their homes or apartments, and we check on them daily. Student Affairs will be in touch with students who are isolating or quarantining as well to provide additional services and support. These individuals are then “withheld from campus,” meaning they should not attend in-person classes or student events, or use campus facilities, including the libraries, Newell Hall and the Reitz Union. Facilities with swipe access, such as recreation centers, will automatically deny access to students who are withheld from campus. If students are attending any in-person activities on campus, the professor and Student Affairs are alerted and the withheld status shows up on the class roster. Please keep in mind that we don’t share any medical information, only that a student is withheld. When they are returned to campus, it shows up as a checkmark and then they are “cleared for campus.”
When this happens with a student living in the residence halls or Greek housing, the same process applies, but with the added important step that the student is immediately moved by Student Affairs to our temporary isolation and quarantine rooms on and off-campus. Contacts will be tested as necessary. There are more than 500 rooms, and they will be separated as recommended by health professionals. There are also hundreds of other rooms off-campus available to UF in local hotels that will be used if necessary. The students will be supported by Student Affairs with social support, food and access to medical and mental health support if necessary.
I would like to close with an important reminder and a reason for optimism.
Having cases on campus, and in every segment of society for that matter is, has been, and will be inevitable until we develop immunity by previous infection or by a vaccine. Our mask policy, physical distancing, mostly online classes, contact tracing, isolation/quarantine policies and other steps that are in place, although imperfect, are intended to limit the spread and protect the most vulnerable until we can definitively end this pandemic through immunity.
The good news is that with each passing day, the science becomes more clear that these steps work. Further good news is that it is likely that a vaccine will be produced in early 2021 and that fact, along with immunity to the virus from previous infection, will combine to end the current crisis. The current plateau and slow drop in cases is not the beginning of the end, but rather the end of the beginning. If we continue to follow certain steps, we can significantly limit the impact of the virus and begin to take control of “what happens next.”
Like always, we really appreciate all you are doing to help keep campus as safe as possible and contribute to the culture of caring at UF. We are in this together.
Please visit the Screen, Test & Protect website for more information and don’t hesitate to reach out to us if we can be of any help at all.
Michael Lauzardo, MD, MSc
Director, UF Health Screen, Test & Protect
Deputy Director, Emerging Pathogens Institute
Associate Professor, Division of Infectious Diseases and Global Medicine
UF College of Medicine