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Everything you need to know about contact tracing at Northeastern

Students and staff wait in line at Northeastern’s testing center in the Cabot Physical Education Center on. The center is a comprehensive coronavirus testing for faculty, staff, and contract workers, as well as students and plays an integral role in the university's plan to reopen and promote the safety of its surrounding communities. Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

Before Sehyo Yune was hired to run the COVID-19 testing and contact tracing program at Northeastern, she helped build one of the first large-scale contact tracing programs in the nation while she was at Partners in Health, an effort that required her to supervise a team of more than 100 case investigators and contact tracers across 27 municipalities in Massachusetts.

Since July, she has adapted many of those principles to her new role as the director of the COVID-19 Wellness team at Northeastern, as part of which she built and oversees Northeastern’s sample collection and contact tracing program.

Sehyo Yune, Director, COVID-19 Wellness University Health and Counseling, poses for a portrait outside the Cabot Testing Center on Sept. 15, 2020. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Contact tracing—the process used to identify those who come into contact with people who have tested positive for a contagious disease—is a long-standing practice that has been used to control illnesses such as tuberculosis or sexually transmitted diseases. It is a crucial tool, Yune says, in reining in the spread of COVID-19. 

“Contact tracing is a strong tool to protect your family, friends, and community, which is as important as providing medical service to individuals,” she says.

Yune shared her insights with News@Northeastern about how the contact tracing program works at the university.

In April, you helped build the Community Tracing Collaborative with Partners in Health, an initiative that helped accelerate the state of Massachusetts’ efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19. In the process, you scaled up to a 1,400-person organization in only a few weeks. What did you learn from that experience?

What I learned is that the principles of contact tracing are universal. I’m originally from South Korea, which has been famous—notorious—for invasive contact tracing. There are differences in the level of acceptance to contact tracing or the balance between individuals’ rights and public health based on cultural differences and previous experiences with infectious diseases. But, the principles of contact tracing are mostly the same, whether in South Korea or the Community Tracing Collaborative, or anywhere. 

The most important lesson I learned during my time at Partners in Health is that contact tracing is about taking care of people who are sick and alone and helping them do the right thing for themselves and for the community. People want to help others, and we support them to help their communities.

What is unique about Northeastern’s contact tracing program?

Having our own contact tracing operation rather than relying on the Boston Public Health Commission or the Massachusetts Department of Public Health allows us to take immediate actions when we see a positive result from our testing program, as we have direct access to the results. If we rely on BPHC or DPH, there will be a time lag that is inevitable between the positive result report, transfer of the result to the other party, and notifying the patient. By operating testing and contact tracing together we can be more efficient and effective in following up on positive cases. 

Our program is in line with the guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the DPH, and especially with the BPHC, because they delegated their authority to us to do contact tracing. We take an additional step where, if a student who is a positive case might have been to a classroom, or might have been to a facility on campus, we find out where they’ve been and deep-clean those places. And we turn off their Husky card access to campus buildings because they are not supposed to be on campus or outside of their room.

Can you tell us more about Northeastern’s contact tracing team?

Currently we have 42 people on the contact tracing team (one manager, 38 contact tracers, and three case investigators) including Northeastern employees who have gone through extensive training provided by the National Network of Disease Intervention Training Centers, which is supported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. We are adding case investigators to the team and will continue to expand the team as needed.

Who has access to the test results?

Only the contact tracer involved in each case has access to the results. There are a few staff who have direct access to the lab system and we check it multiple times a day.

What is the first thing a contact tracer does after someone tests positive?

Sometimes a clinician is the first to let the patient know, but sometimes we (the contact tracers) are the first. We cannot provide clinical advice, but we can let them know that they tested positive and give them instructions to safely isolate. We ask about the symptoms, and of course if they are very sick, they can be referred to the proper resources. We ask about where they have been on campus and who they’ve met, especially other Northeastern students, faculty or staff. We walk through their day—Where did you go? Who did you meet? Were you with this person for more than 15 minutes within six feet? And then we determine who was a close contact and we collect their information.

How does your team determine who is a close contact and what is the protocol for outreach to those individuals?

If you went to work and there were a lot of other people around you, it doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone who worked in the same general area at the same time is a close contact if they were far enough and they didn’t really interact closely. 

Close contact means that they have been within six feet for more than 15 minutes with someone who is diagnosed with COVID-19 while they are presumed to be infectious, which is within two days before symptom onset or date of testing. There are other circumstances that one can become a close contact, such as an intimate physical contact.

If the close contact is a Northeastern student, faculty or staff, we call them to let them know that they were exposed and that they have to quarantine. They can’t go out, they can’t go to school or to the grocery store. We call them daily to check in and to see if everything is OK, if they develop symptoms, and if they are tested, what the results are.

What happens to close contacts that are identified outside of the Northeastern community?

We report that information to the Department of Public Health, then the DPH will reach out to those people through their own contact tracing process and let them know how to quarantine.

Can people opt out of the contact tracing process?

No. This is a public health order that everyone has to follow. If not, they may be subject to disciplinary actions by Northeastern.

What do you say to students who are worried about sharing information with contact tracers for fear of incriminating themselves or their friends?

You will not be punished for sharing critical information with contact tracers. The university has been very clear about the importance of healthy distancing, wearing a mask both indoors and outdoors, and not participating in unsafe gatherings. The consequences for violating those rules have also been made clear.

When it comes to contact tracing, however, everyone should feel assured that the information they share with contact tracers will only be used to identify close contacts so they can be promptly informed about the need to quarantine. Even if what individuals share with contact tracers reveals violations of COVID-19 protocols, we will protect the individual’s privacy and the information will only be used in the interest of public health. 

If you share with a contact tracer that you went to a party or an unsafe gathering, contact tracers are not going to report it to anyone. They just need to know where you went and what interactions you had in order to determine close contacts and prevent the virus from spreading further.

What we do care about is that quarantine and isolation protocols suggested by the contact tracer are being closely followed. As long as you closely follow the quarantine and isolation protocols, no information will be shared outside of the contact tracing team.

Do you report the data you collect from the Northeastern community during the contact tracing process to any external entities?

We are required to report it to the Department of Public Health, but other than that we do not disclose any information to anyone—not to professors or friends or family.

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