Carnegie Mellon University

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April 11, 2021

CMU’s Contact Tracing Team Is a Network Production

By Bruce Gerson

This team is answering the call by making the call — thousands of them.

Carnegie Mellon University’s unsung team of contact tracers has been diligently working behind the scenes since last August to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Nineteen CMU staff members have joined forces across campus to implement a major communications effort — contacting students, faculty and staff who have tested positive to assess how they’re feeling, collecting information about the places they’ve been and the people they’ve been in contact with, and providing them with information about isolation and quarantine.

They are assessing needs for resources and support, making notifications to initiate the necessary cleaning, reaching out to close contacts, and then conducting a myriad of follow-ups to ensure members of the campus community have the help they need.

Kelley Shell, director of the Health Promotion Program at University Health Services (UHS), oversees the contact tracing for students. She said the team monitors students through the duration of their isolation or quarantine period until they’re cleared.

“We send students a daily survey to assess their symptoms and needs and reach out to UHS providers, housefellows, college liaisons and other campus partners to enlist additional support for them,” she said.

Residential students with a confirmed or probable case of COVID-19 are moved into isolation housing on campus, and close contacts are moved into quarantine housing. Students who live off campus are instructed to isolate or quarantine where they live. 

“Most of the individuals we speak with are appreciative and cooperative,” said Shell, who estimates the team has contacted about 1,500 CMU community members since last August. “They understand the importance of doing their part to protect the health and safety of the whole community.

“ ... we do our best to empathize, educate and support every person we speak with.”— Kelley Shell

“Receiving the news you need to isolate or quarantine is difficult, and some people express worry, frustration or confusion, so we do our best to empathize, educate and support every person we speak with,” she said.

Shannon Bono oversees the contact tracing for faculty and staff, but at times there is some overlap with students, she said, most commonly when students have been in close contact with a faculty member. A licensed social worker, Bono worked in a hospital intensive care unit for more than six years prior to joining CMU last October.

“We gather information about their symptoms, spaces occupied on campus over the past 48 hours and any close contacts they had during that time,” Bono explained. “Additionally, we notify Facilities Management and Campus Services of any spaces that need to be cleaned or shut down, and then I work on getting in contact with the close contacts. Then, there’s quite a bit of follow-up.”

Bono said she feels good being able to calm people down.

“An underlying emotion I hear consistently throughout all my interactions is fear,” she said. “For me, personally, the biggest victory has been to be able to alleviate distress or concern of another person, even if it is just through the phone.”

Many members of the contact tracing team are staff who were furloughed, or had reduced work due to the pandemic, and took on this role in addition to their existing position. Andrea James is one of six people from the Department of Athletics who joined the team. She said it was important for her to make sure the students knew they had support.

“I think our student community has responded really well to the conditions,” said James, the Tartans’ associate sports information director. “Although there have been a few clusters, once we were able to identify the close contacts and make the calls, everyone did what they needed to do to keep the spread to a minimum. I’m glad I could be part of that and am thankful I have been in a position to assist,” she said.

“ ... once we were able to identify the close contacts and make the calls, everyone did what they needed to do to keep the spread to a minimum.” — Andrea James

Jaime Rzepecki is one of four staff members who joined the contact tracing team from Conference and Event Services. She said she’s been on the phone since August. So how many calls has she made?

“Oh, dear, I have no idea,” she said. “I’m on the phone now more than ever. I’m happy to connect students with the proper resources they may need while quarantining. I’m happy to help.”

In addition to Athletics and Conference and Event Services, the team has representatives from the School of Music, CREATE Lab, UHS, Tartan Testing and Community Health & Well-Being.

Shell praised the team, calling them “exceptional” and “amazing.”

“They’ve courageously stepped into this new, essential role and shared a wide array of skills that have been invaluable to our success,” Shell said. “They work hard, day and evening, seven days per week and holidays, to protect the health of our community. They are highly dedicated, professional, compassionate and all around a stellar group of Tartans!"