The Campus COVID Support Team works to quickly gather information when students, faculty and staff test positive for COVID-19.
By Kristen Mitchell
The George Washington University has formed a robust network of faculty, staff and administrators prepared to act swiftly when a positive case of COVID-19 has been detected within the community. At the heart of this effort is the Campus COVID Support Team (CCST), a new group guided by public health experts that connects individuals affected by COVID-19 with resources and collects information critical to slow transmission on campus.
All individuals with campus access are tested regularly for COVID-19. When a positive case is detected, the CCST contacts that individual to ensure they are aware of the test result, informs them of isolation procedures and asks questions to gather additional information about who they have been interacting with on campus in the past 48 hours and what on-campus spaces they visited. This process, coined contact tracing or contact elicitation, allows the CCST to reach out to additional members of the on-campus cohort who might have interacted with a COVID-positive individual, provide them with required resources and engage cleaning protocols to disinfect campus spaces as needed.
Information gathered is passed onto local health departments in Washington, D.C., and Virginia to assist in contact tracing efforts outside the GW community. The COVID-19 positivity rate has stayed below 1% on campus since the GW testing protocol was launched in August. Amita Vyas, Milken Institute School of Public Health associate professor and a co-director of the CCST, said the infrastructure GW has put into place since March has gone a long way toward keeping cases and transmission low.
“The success of this whole operation and what we’ve been able to do is because we are able to coordinate with all of the different entities across campus,” she said. “If we are notified of a test result at 8 p.m. at night, our team will still be in touch with that individual to make sure they are cared for and isolated which is key to mitigation and minimizing any continued spread of the virus.”
The CCST coordinates with Safety and Security, the Division for Student Affairs, the CARE Team, Colonial Health Center, Occupational Health, the COVID-19 testing lab and the testing clinics on the Foggy Bottom and Virginia Science and Technology campuses, to provide a safe and healthy campus environment for members of the GW community. The CCST, a group of 12 people, is led by Dr. Vyas and co-directors Amanda Castel and Karen McDonnell, both members of the Milken Institute SPH faculty.
When the pandemic took hold in March, Dr. Castel, Dr. McDonnell and Dr. Vyas individually began working closely with DC Health and county health departments in Maryland to assist in setting up early contact tracing protocols and outbreak investigations. Through this experience they saw what kind of efforts were needed at the local level to combat the spread of COVID-19.
“Right from the start we knew that GW would have to put in place rigorous COVID-19 testing and case investigations,” said Lynn R. Goldman, dean of Milken Institute SPH. “That effort now has paid off and helps to keep the GW campus and surrounding community healthy and safe.”
Professor Amanda Castel (left) and Associate Professor Karen McDonnell are co-directors of the CCST. (William Atkins/ GW Today)
Within a few hours of receiving a positive result, individuals infected with COVID-19 receive a call from the CCST. In addition to connecting individuals with necessary medical care and student services, interview assistants conduct campus-focused case investigations and contact elicitation. Affected contacts are then quickly notified of their exposure, instructed to quarantine and informed of next steps for testing. The COVID-positive individual’s name is not shared with contacts and all of the information the CCST collects is confidential.
Contact tracing is a key component to slowing COVID-19 transmission on campus. CCST interviewers aim to build trust with infected students, faculty, staff and contractors to gain an accurate picture of where they’ve been in order to determine who needs to quarantine and which spaces need to be cleaned, Dr. Vyas said.
“It’s important that we empower people to stop the spread of COVID-19, both in the GW community but also the larger D.C. community,” she said. “That message is really important, and I think that resonates really well with people. Another key aspect of that is transparency which is why we have a GW COVID-19 dashboard that provides key metrics on testing and cases on our campus.”
The public health COVID-19 testing lab based in Science and Engineering Hall reports all test results to DC Health and the Virginia Department of Health, depending on where individuals are tested. Information gathered during campus-focused case investigations and contact elicitation is also reported. Positive individuals should be contacted by contact tracers with the Virginia and D.C. health departments who will seek more information about off-campus locations members of the GW community have visited, such as grocery stores, and whom they have had close contact with.
The university expanded COVID-19 testing capacity earlier this semester to include GW students who do not currently have access to campus but live in the D.C. metro area. Since September, symptomatic testing for students without campus access has detected clusters after off-campus events.
“We’ve been able to identify the source of those clusters and really, by implementing rapid quarantine and isolation protocols, we’ve been able to stem the spread of COVID-19 fairly successfully,” Dr. Castel said.
The CCST meets virtually multiple times a week with collaborators across the university to discuss the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and DC Health guidance, the state of transmission on campus, plans for the months to come and address any pressing issues.
“A huge part of why we’ve been successful is because we communicate so well,” Dr. McDonnell said. “We’ve been able to really problem solve when the problems are small and solvable. I can’t think of anything that has not been able to be solved with people talking to one another.”
Preparing for the Months Ahead
Public health experts are concerned about the months ahead as documented COVID-19 cases and deaths continue to rise across the country. As the weather turns colder, gatherings are expected to move indoors where transmission has proven to be more widespread. The CCST urges everyone in the GW community and beyond to push back against “COVID fatigue” and continue adhering to public safety measures including mask wearing, social distancing and hand washing.
“It’s time for us to recall where we’ve been and remember all the behavioral measures that we can take to reduce the risk of transmission,” Dr. Castel said.
Residential students are encouraged to participate in exit testing before they depart Foggy Bottom at the end of the semester to ensure they are returning to their families and communities as safely as possible.
The university plans to welcome 1,100 additional residential students to campus for the spring semester as virtual learning continues, bringing the total number of residential students to 1,600. This expanded student cohort will participate in GW's testing protocol, however, a larger testing pool is likely to translate to more positive cases. The CCST plans to hire additional team members to respond to evolving demands.