COLUMBIA - As the number of MU students with COVID-19 rises, the university's response is trying to keep up with the demand.

The process

When a student tests positive, they're expected to self-report their infection to the university. A member of the university's CARE Team then reaches out usually within 24 hours, according to MU's Show Me Renewal website.

The CARE Team member walks students through getting connected to resources like food delivery and class accommodations.

If the student lives in a Residential Life hall, the department will then reach out to discuss quarantine options, according to the website.

Then, a case investigator calls students to get a list of people they may have exposed to the virus. A contact tracer then calls the close contacts to warn them of possible exposure and discuss quarantine guidelines.

MU gives no specific timeline on when the contact tracing begins. In July, Boone County health officials said their goal was for contact tracers to reach out within 24 hours of a patient receiving a positive result.

Significant delays

MU junior Sami Sandt tested positive on September 1. Within hours, a CARE Team member called her.

"I was kind of surprised that they like called me so fast, but I mean, everything else has been pretty bad," she said.

On day eight of her 10-day quarantine, Sandt heard from a case investigator to identify any close contacts.

ResLife staff reached out the same day to move her from her apartment to a hotel to spend the last three nights of quarantine.

When asked about the delay, Sandt said the staff member told her the department tried reaching out multiple times. Her phone log showed only one missed call from the same morning.

A delay in hearing from a contact tracer can also delay close contacts from learning they've been exposed. Eliot Fuller said he was exposed to someone with COVID-19 on September 4, but hasn't received a call.

"I've been directly exposed a bunch of times, you know, in her room and stuff, [but] I'm not really sure what to do right now. There's been no guidance from the school, there seems to be no plan for the people who have been exposed," he said.

He tested negative after experiencing a cough, but is worried others may not be monitoring for symptoms as diligently or self-quarantining without guidance from a contact tracer. The student Fuller was exposed to was able to leave isolation Sunday.

County and university backlog unequal

MU's student health center took over the case investigations and contact tracing for students from the Boone County Health Department at the start of the fall semester.

Online records show MU currently has 12 contact tracers, two added within the last week, and four case investigators, at least one added within the last week.

MU sophomore Yonny Astatke said he heard from a MU case investigator five days after testing positive.

"After they gave me the call saying that I tested positive...they said, you'll hear from a contact tracer in a couple of days. And I just thought, oh, that means like probably tomorrow or the next day. I was, I was actually really shocked at how long it took me to hear back from a contact tracer," he said.

Five days is how long Boone County now tells positive cases to expect before receiving a call from a case investigator due to the high caseload. They advise close contacts to quarantine before they ever hear from a contact tracer.

An email from a university contact tracer obtained by KOMU said the staff worked through the Labor Day weekend to try to catch up.

"I don't necessarily blame them. I blame the system that the school put them in because clearly it's not working," Fuller said.

The guidance on MU's Show Me Renewal website advises anyone who knows they may have been exposed to not come to campus. It also states: "Any individual who was possibly exposed to COVID-19 will receive a call from a tracer with the date of possible exposure and expectations for a 14-day quarantine."

There's no public warning from the university that students should expect a delay in contact tracing. Two university spokespeople did not return multiple requests for comment last week on the contact tracing process.

Boone County Health Director Stephanie Browning told Columbia City Council members on Monday that MU was experiencing a contact tracing delay.

Looking ahead

As of Friday, MU reported it had 562 active student cases it would be responsible for investigating and contact tracing- a share of 65 percent of the total Boone County active cases.

The county added five new investigators and contact tracers this week with CARES Act funds for a total of 19 staff and volunteers.

In May, the National Association of County and City Health Officials recommended counties maintain 30 contact tracers per 100,000 people. Boone County would need 54 contact tracers for its population.

Between the city/county health department and MU, there's currently 35 contact tracers and case investigators, 19 short of the recommendation. The city's website lists multiple job openings for COVID-19 health educators and disease investigators.

For MU to keep up with the 65 percent share of cases its students make-up, they would need 35 contact tracers alone, more than doubling its current workforce.

Browning also told city council members Monday it'd be at least two to three weeks after hiring enough contact tracers before they could get back to the 24-48 hour window of calling positive cases.

Until then, students said they are left frustrated.

"Frankly, a little embarrassing. Not for me. But I think for the institution as a whole," Sandt said.

Others remain hopeful, but expect dismal effects of the delay.

"In a couple of weeks, or whatever the time may be, admins are going to place the blame on the students, which in turn means that the public perception of who's at fault when schools close will be on the students, when it's not the case at all," Astatke said.

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