CARBONDALE — As Southern Illinois University Carbondale prepares to welcome thousands of students onto its campus for the fall semester, officials have worked with county and state public health organizations to develop plans to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
The Jackson County Health Department will “take the lead” on contact tracing while providing support by providing contact information, work schedules and other tools necessary to contact trace an individual who has tested positive for COVID-19 on the Carbondale campus, according to Rae Goldsmith, university spokeswoman.
“We may learn of cases multiple ways. Sometimes the university may be notified by the health department of a positive case, and we will provide contact information, work schedules, class schedules (in the fall) and any other information we have to assist with confidential contact tracing,” Goldsmith said.
She added the university may learn about a possible case independently, and they encourage people to report possible cases. After that point, SIU will “initiate the contact tracing process by contacting departments, finding out who may have been in contact with individuals and getting contact information to share with the health department.”
Goldsmith said the key to being successful in contact tracing is close and regular communication. Generally, those who have been exposed will be notified directly by the health department because they are the “agency authorized to issue isolation and quarantine orders,” Goldsmith said, while adding notifications would take place through a phone call, email or possibly both.
While many think about students meeting for classes and the possibility of COVID-19 spread, Goldsmith said “if it is determined that there is a threat to a large portion of the community” the university will send out an alert in compliance with the Clery Act through an email or text message. “In all cases, the university will focus on protecting the confidentiality of individuals who are affected while also protecting the health and safety of the campus community,” she said.
Goldsmith said if there is a positive case, the university will take into account multiple factors on the case such as the number of people exposed, the ability to contain further spread, recommendations from health officials and the region's phase in the Restore Illinois plan. She notes “there is no one-size-fits-all approach that can cover every situation.”
Jackson County Health Department Administrator Bart Hagston said that his team is working closely with SIU, much like it is with area K-12 school districts. “The dynamics are of course different with the university versus a primary or secondary school,” he said. “And I think primary and secondary schools have certain challenges, but colleges also have a lot of complexities in how they handle this.”
Hagston noted that in recent weeks, Jackson County’s rise in COVID-19 cases has been attributed to younger people in their teens and 20s. That’s in part because they are more social and they also are more likely to work jobs where they interact more frequently with the public, such as at bars and restaurants. “You just have more potential for exposure” with that age group, he said.
In a Thursday COVID-19 update to community leaders, Southern Illinois Healthcare noted that almost 70% of COVID-19 cases reported in July in Jackson County have been individuals in their late teens to mid-20s.
“Currently, transmission in the community is being driven by young adults,” the report said. “While many young adults do not suffer significant symptoms from COVID-19, some do. In addition, as the spread continues, the disease will eventually reach those who are more susceptible (elderly, those with chronic health conditions), and they tend to fare far worse from this disease.”
SIU is taking measures to encourage social distancing — and there could be ramifications for violating public health guidance. The university is making changes to its student conduct code as it relates to COVID-19 and gatherings, Goldsmith said. The language is awaiting approval and will be announced soon.
While the university doesn’t currently have plans for mass testing, Goldsmith said students exhibiting symptoms can be tested through Southern Illinois Healthcare or SIU’s Student Health Center, but should call ahead. The student health insurance carrier at SIU is also waiving co-pays for COVID-19-related visits, testing and treatment, as well as telehealth coverage for related services through Oct. 22. At this point, Goldsmith said, the health center will only test symptomatic students, but suggested those who want to get tested to visit another testing facility in the community.
In a Friday afternoon email to students, Chancellor Austin Lane encouraged them to get tested for COVID-19 before returning to campus, while “allowing enough time to get the results back before classes start.” He said if a student tests positive for the virus, they should not travel to Carbondale until they are cleared by a health official, and they should contact the dean of students to ensure they stay on top of their coursework.
Additionally, Lane suggested minimizing contact with others and self-quarantining two weeks before the fall semester. “If you do go out, wear a mask, practice social distancing and avoid gatherings,” he said. “Take care of your health so you can get off to a great start this fall and do your part to protect others.”
While COVID-19 has sent colleges and universities across the country reeling in finding an effective way to test their student bodies, the University of Illinois has developed a less-obtrusive COVID-19 test that relies on a saliva sample.
Goldsmith said SIU has been in discussion with the University of Illinois about the test, but it has not been federally approved for use outside of the U of I system. She added a final decision on the implementation of the test at SIU would take several factors into consideration, such as federal approval, required equipment and cost. Additionally, the University of Illinois’ saliva test “would likely be available prior to any test SIU could develop independently.”
Lane and other campus leaders will be holding a Zoom campus community update for the fall semester’s COVID-19 plans from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. on Aug. 7. Visit chancellor.siu.edu for more information.
On Twitter: @brianmmunoz
On Twitter: @MollyParkerSI
Concerned about COVID-19?
Sign up now to get the most recent coronavirus headlines and other important local and national news sent to your email inbox daily.