As soon as the word epidemic was associated with the SARS-CoV-2 virus, Ellis Bruch, Utah State University’s Director of Emergency Management, felt his ears prick. He immediately took action, working with university leaders to formulate emergency procedures, policies and contingency plans. These early planning sessions allowed USU to dive right into unique and successful COVID-19 response, focused on virus containment through contact tracing and testing, and student wellness and care, services that have remained steady from their inception.
“When the CDC classified the virus outbreak as a pandemic in March, we were already well into the planning process and ready to act,” Bruch said.
USU looked at how it would combat a virus that was highly transmittable and caused some who were infected to not even exhibit symptoms. Bruch and his team understood that contract tracing, a tool used to slow the spread of infectious disease, would be an essential service the university needed to provide. Although other organizations have struggled to keep up their contact tracing efforts, USU continues to track every case under its purview.
“I felt like we needed to have a program here on campus that would allow us to do our own internal contact tracing,” Bruch said. “That in turn would help the community and help Bear River Health Department as well, so they wouldn’t have to worry about our on-campus or off-campus student housing contact tracing.”
To accomplish this goal, USU created the COVID Containment team, led by Case Containment Manager Cindy Gill. The team of more than 15 full-time and part-time workers work from home to contact trace every positive case they become aware of to help limit the spread of the virus.
“We specifically focus on the contact tracing that involves Utah State,” Gill said. “Even if it’s at another campus like Eastern or Blanding, or a student who attends fully online, we’re specifically focusing on exposure relating to students, faculty and staff.”
In September, USU launched its on-campus testing sites. Utilizing the campus’ access to veterinary diagnostic labs, the campus was able to create COVID-19 test kits. Months later, this allowed USU to already be prepared to test students weekly, in compliance with the mandate from Governor Herbert in November.
“It’s very expensive for the university but the return is that I believe we have limited a lot of spread on campus,” Bruch said. “We have not had any true spread of the virus inside of our classrooms.”
Once the university becomes aware of a positive test result of a student or staff member, the university makes contact with the individual to discuss who they have come into close contact with and what steps they should take to quarantine. The case officer works with the individual to identify close contacts starting two days prior to feeling any symptoms, or two days prior to a positive test for asymptomatic cases. The goal is then to contact those close encounters to inform them of possible exposure.
“It can be anywhere from like a 10 to 40 minutes interview,” Gill said. “For every positive case we’re going to be creating a minimum of two to three cases for one positive of people that have to quarantine. We had one positive case that end up having to quarantine 36 people.”
Once a student is finished with their contact tracing, they are referred to USU’s COVID CARE team. This team of nine works with students to fulfill their physical and academic needs while in isolation. Whether it be working with faculty to facilitate online classes, offering emotional support through mental health resources, or helping them receive free grocery delivery, the team works with students to meet their needs.
“We will take whatever a student lets us know they need, and we try and problem solve and figure out a way to get it done for them,” said COVID CARE Co-Chair David Pruden. “We want to make sure that the students continue to have good access to their education. We don’t want COVID to be a hurdle in their path to graduation any more than it has to be.”
Through it all, the goal has been to keep the university open and able to continue its educational mission, while maintaining the safety of students and faculty. Although the process is not easy, everyone involved in combating the spread at USU sees its merit. Bruch lauded the leadership of USU President Noelle Cockett throughout the entire pandemic and the unending support and resources she has afforded to USU’s COVID fight.
“Noelle Cockett has been incredibly involved in this entire operation from the onset,” he said. “What’s truly made our success possible has been the great people that work here. It’s an entire team effort it involves everybody from the president down to those that clean our door handles for us.”