MU students who test positive for COVID-19 while on campus this fall are not required to report that information to the university, campus leaders said Tuesday while addressing questions on the university’s safety procedures in a virtual town hall.
Because positive test results are medically protected information, students are able to self-report, but it is “possible that a person could test positive and we would not get to know on campus,” said John Middleton, chair-elect of MU’s faculty council.
That stipulation could complicate MU’s tracking of the virus’s spread on campus this semester, which begins Aug. 24. MU will track all positive cases confirmed by the MU Student Health Center and will have an online dashboard making that data publicly available, Middleton said, but students who get tested elsewhere will not be included in that tool.
Positive test results will be reported by students’ healthcare providers to the Columbia/Boone County Health and Social Services Department, MU spokesperson Christian Basi said. That agency will begin a case investigation and tracing the student’s close contacts. That contact tracing process will be led by an MU team in collaboration with the health department, he added.
One question during the virtual panel, held to inform MU faculty and staff, asked if an instructor notified of exposure through contact tracing is allowed to temporarily move class online or take other measures.
If a faculty member has been exposed, Provost Latha Ramchand said, MU recommends them to inform their department chair and work to have "a buddy or someone else" take over the class if the instructor chooses to self-isolate. Faculty and other instructors “should not be making unilateral decisions to shift delivery methods midsemester,” Associate Provost for Academic Programs Matthew Martens said.
However, if a student informs an instructor they tested positive, the instructor is not required to do anything, Ramchand said.
MU’s requirements of 6-foot physical distancing and face coverings should prevent or minimize spread within classroom settings, several administrators said.
“Because someone tests positive in a classroom situation does not necessarily mean that has downstream implications for the rest of the class,” Middleton said.
Administrators faced several questions asking about the rationale for opening the campus at “the height of a pandemic” and why more stringent policies compared to other institutions had not been put in place at MU, such as mandatory testing.
The university originally considered requiring testing, UM System President and Interim MU Chancellor Mun Choi said, but later learned that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did not recommend it.
“(Mandatory testing) only provides you a snapshot of the situation,” Choi said. “What’s more important is to constantly evaluate the symptoms.”
MU will be working with Roche pharmaceuticals to utilize an app for tracking symptoms daily, Choi said, which would allow the university to track possible outbreaks on campus.
Choi and other administrators repeatedly emphasized the importance of individual responsibility in reducing the spread of the virus on campus, including symptom tracking, good hygiene and other procedures. That responsibility, he said, would come in part from education and training.
“We can’t be everywhere to enforce our rules,” Choi said. “There are many students, faculty and staff who want to come back to the enriched, in-person experience, but that experience will be diminished if we have to have a reversion back into remote operations because members of our community did not take the safety and health precautions seriously.”
When asked by a submitted question to rationalize reopening campus “at the height of a pandemic,” Choi said the procedures in place and the emphasis on education and training will “protect our community.”
“We believe that there will always be risks in opening up a campus, whether there’s a pandemic or not,” Choi said. “Our goal is to continue with education training, monitor the rate of disease spread, be prepared for more hospitalization required for COVID patients.”
Isolation housing will be available for students who live on campus and test positive, as well as those students’ close contacts, according to MU’s Show Me Renewal plan.
Missouri is in the midst of its worst days of the pandemic thus far, reporting over 1,100 cases Tuesday in a new daily record. Although Boone County, which Choi said had “followed the rules very well” in recent months, has seen three deaths and lower spread than other cities, it has also seen a surge in positive cases in recent weeks.
Any midsemester pivot or shutdown at MU is dependent on local positive cases, availability of personal protective equipment and hospital capacity, Middleton said.
Through MU Health Care, MU has 650 physicians, 1,300 nurses and up to 400 hospital beds that can be made available for COVID-19 patients. Currently, the university is able to perform 1,500 tests in-house daily, and is planning to increase that to 3,000 daily by September, Choi said.