Yale collects information on thousands of students per week as part of its COVID-19 testing program. When deciding what information is shared with which individuals, the University aims to balance protecting individuals’ privacy with ensuring the health of the Yale community.
According to the Privacy Practices for Yale COVID-19 Campus Health and Safety Program, the University collects and maintains records related to students’ completion of public health measures, such as daily health checks, routine testing, contact tracing, quarantine and isolation. Although personally identifiable information is collected, the website states that Yale only uses it for activities “needed to prompt campus safety or as required by law.” University officials explained to the News how decisions are made regarding sharing COVID-related information with the Yale community and also discussed reasons for the two-to-three-day delay in dashboard data.
“Determinations as to the appropriate balancing of privacy and public safety rely on considering the nature of the concern and who can reasonably mitigate that concern or provide needed assistance to students,” Chief Privacy Officer Susan Bouregy wrote in an email to the News.
Bouregy explained that student COVID-19 testing and results are governed by the privacy protections provided under FERPA, which protect student education records, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s website. According to Bouregy, FERPA “allows use of education records where necessary to address health and safety emergencies.”
Bouregy told the News that identifying information about students who test positive for COVID-19 is only shared with those who need the information “for purposes of public health” or those who assist the student who tested positive with academic or residential accommodations. These individuals include health care providers at Yale Health, as well as relevant deans, heads of college and Yale College health and safety leaders, who support individuals who test positive and ensure that appropriate areas are cleaned and other safety requirements are met.
Other individuals on campus only have access to non-identifying information about the positive case.
In a few notable instances, the Saybrook, Hopper and Morse heads of college updated their respective residential colleges via email about a positive case within each of their college communities. Students enrolled in residence and enrolled remotely received the emails. Those heads of college did not respond to requests for comment about whether there is a uniform policy on communicating information about positive cases to residential college communities or if each head of college is given discretion.
According to University COVID-19 Coordinator Stephanie Spangler, schools or units that are contemplating communications about positive COVID-19 cases consult with her office to review “privacy and public health implications that need to be taken into consideration.”
When an individual tests positive, Chief Quality Officer at Yale Health and chair of Yale’s COVID-19 Testing and Tracing Committee Madeline Wilson explained that the contact tracing team calls both close contacts and low-risk contacts. Close contacts are asked to quarantine and test, and low-risk contacts are informed and recommended to test and self-monitor. According to Bouregy, identities of students who test positive are not released to contacts during the contact-tracing process.
Two weeks ago, an outbreak of COVID-19 occurred among members of the Yale men’s hockey team. When Spangler first updated the community on the cluster of positive cases on Oct. 13, she only identified the positive cases as involving “members of the same varsity athletic team.”
But on Oct. 15, Spangler sent out another email update about the rising case count, identifying the individuals more specifically as “members of the men’s ice hockey team.”
“We are committed to sharing as much general information as we can about the state of viral transmission in our community,” Spangler wrote in an email to the News about the sharing of these additional details. “In certain circumstances, such as a cluster of cases or an emerging outbreak, we may share additional, specific information with the community because we have determined that the situation merits an expansion of our contact tracing efforts.”
In order to share information about the state of public health on campus, the University also uses the Yale COVID-19 Statistics dashboard, which is updated daily with data from Yale’s testing program.
While students generally receive their individual COVID-19 test results within 24 hours of taking the test, it can take two to three days for the COVID-19 dashboard to reflect the results from a particular day.
According to Wilson, this delay can be explained by the multi-step process required for COVID-19 testing. After a student swabs their nose, a courier leaves to take the test samples to the Broad Institute, the lab vendor in Cambridge, Massachusetts that provides most of the testing for the University. Morning samples are taken to the lab at noon and the Broad Institute typically begins processing the samples by 3 p.m. Afternoon samples do not typically arrive at the lab until 9 p.m.
The lab typically takes between 12 and 20 hours to process samples, and Wilson explained that the University begins receiving results from tests from a certain day between midday and late evening the day after. When the results are finalized, they become available to the University for reporting, and several steps go into cleaning the data and ensuring there are no duplicate results. The public dashboard is updated once daily based on the data available at 10:30 a.m. on that day. Tests and positive cases on the dashboard are labeled with the date on which the sample was collected.
The time it takes to deliver samples to the Broad Institute, process samples and sort through data, as well as the fact that the public dashboard is only updated once a day, all account for why results do not appear on the dashboard until two to three days after samples are collected and one to two days after a student receives their individual test result.
“We are, of course, interacting with actual patients and their results, and making necessary public health decisions in real time to limit the spread of infection and risk to the community,” Wilson wrote in an email to the News. “If we receive a result at 7 pm we will initiate outreach to the student and isolation immediately; the updating of the public dashboard is a secondary process and does not hinder our clinical or public health responsiveness.”
As of Oct. 29, the Yale COVID-19 dashboard reflects 88 positive cases since Aug. 1, an increase of 17 cases over the past week.
Julia Bialek | email@example.com