Students report varied contact tracing experiences
Some students have expressed confusion over perceived disparities in their contact tracing experiences as the Yale Contact Tracing Team shifts its focus to high-risk groups and areas of ongoing transmission.
Regina Sung, Photo Editor
When a Yale student tests positive for COVID-19, one of the calls they can expect to receive is from the Yale Contact Tracing Team, but students have reported disparities with regard to when — and if — the call comes.
Yale’s contact tracing guidance webpage, most recently updated on Feb. 23, states that the University is now asking COVID-positive individuals to notify their own close contacts of potential exposure, allowing the University to prioritize its contact tracing efforts in “areas with ongoing transmission and among our highest-risk groups.” Previously, the Yale Contact Tracing Team, or YCTT, aimed to talk to all students who tested positive. In interviews with the News, some students expressed confusion over perceived disparities in contact tracing call experiences.
“The questions are designed to elicit key individuals, places, and events which assist the contact tracing team in identifying common sources of infection, clustering of cases, and ultimately help prevent ongoing transmission,” Margaret Anderson, YCTT program manager, wrote in an email to the News. “The duration of the interview will vary based on individuals’ responses and their activities during the look back period.”
According to Anderson, 94 percent of all University community members who tested positive in the weeklong period ending March 2 received interviews, indicating that the team remains a significant part of the University’s efforts to combat the spread of COVID-19 despite this policy shift.
Contact tracing protocols do not differ based on whether an undergraduate lives on campus or off, Anderson said. Individuals who test positive at home — or before they arrive on campus, as was the case for some early in the semester — do not receive contact tracing interviews because the YCTT is a campus-based program. She clarified that if an individual spent time on campus during their infectious period, they would still receive an interview.
In a Feb. 25 community-wide email, University COVID-19 Coordinator Stephanie Spangler shared data from the contact tracing team’s interview-based findings.
According to the graphic Spangler shared, the contact tracing team conducted 795 student case interviews between Feb. 4 and Feb. 24. Of those, 31 percent of cases were linked to “off-campus unmasked gatherings or parties” as the most likely source of infection. The second-most likely source of infection was more than an hour of unmasked contact within three feet of a COVID-positive individual, to which 17 percent of cases were linked.
In interviews with the News, students described a range of experiences with contact tracing after testing positive.
Riley Meeks ’23 told the News that when she received her contact tracing call, the scope of questioning included “literally every single detail” about her activities in the two weeks leading up to her positive test. She said that she was asked whether she had eaten in the dining hall with any friends or been maskless within six feet of anyone else in the two weeks prior, in addition to the dates and times of specific meals.
The timeframe of the activities she was asked about confused her, Meeks said. She felt as if events 14 days prior to her positive test would have “no connection to why [she] was actually positive.”
Yale’s contact tracing guidance webpage states that employees who test positive will be asked about individuals who may have been close contacts during their infectious period, which the site defines as two days prior to symptom onset or two days prior to the positive test date if asymptomatic. The site does not clarify whether that definition applies to students, too.
Meeks’ contact tracing call ultimately lasted 40 minutes, she said, and she described the experience as “frustrating.” She said that she knew other COVID-positive students in isolation concurrently whose calls were only five minutes long, and still others who never received a call at all.
Multiple undergraduates confirmed that they never received a contact tracing call after testing positive. Anderson did not respond to questions about these accounts.
From Meeks’ perspective, she said, it seemed as if the staffers making contact tracing calls were not operating with a standardized set of guidelines. She acknowledged that the volume of students testing positive around the same time was likely “overwhelm[ing]” for the contact tracing team. Still, she said, it felt like “they just picked who they wanted to talk to.”
Anderson told the News that contact tracing interviews follow a script that includes both “standardized case investigation questions” and public health guidance.
Simona Hausleitner ’25 said in an interview with the News that her contact tracing call lasted between 15 and 20 minutes. She was asked general questions about her “movements around campus” in the week leading up to her positive test, Hausleitner said.
By contrast, Hausleitner said, her roommate in isolation housing — who she also shares a double bedroom with on campus — was questioned in much more detail, and her call took 30 minutes.
“When the people on the phone immediately mention one of the larger social gatherings … I think they ask less questions because they assume that’s where you got it from,” Hausleitner said.
Anderson noted that COVID-19 cases continue to be “most frequently associated” with gatherings where attendees are unmasked.
Anderson told the News that the YCTT first tries to reach COVID-positive individuals via phone call. For calls that aren’t answered, she said, the team follows up with notification via voicemail and email in attempts to reach them. In cases of unresponsiveness, the team alerts the individual’s dean or health and safety leader for assistance in making contact.
Conrad Lee ’25 told the News that the contact tracing team first reached out to him a full day after he received his positive test result. He missed the initial call, Lee said, and was sent to voicemail when he called back five minutes later. The next day — 48 hours after his positive test — he got another call from the contact tracing team, which he picked up. Lee said the conversation lasted around 10 minutes and consisted mainly of him confirming the names of his suitemates to the contact tracer.
“I had a reasonable experience with the contact tracing team but feel that they reached me with instructions a bit late,” Lee said.
Sixty-five undergraduates tested positive in the seven-day period ending March 6, according to the University’s COVID-19 data dashboard.