Contact tracers track spread of COVID-19 in UT-Austin community

Amanda Figueroa-Nieves

The University will continue to contact trace students, faculty and staff through an agreement between Dell Medical School and Austin Public Health, according to a message sent by UT Interim President Jay Hartzell on Aug. 4. 

Infectious disease epidemiologist Darlene Bhavnani, who oversees all contact tracing efforts at UT, said when an individual tests positive or self-reports a positive test result, they should expect a text and call from the contact tracing team.

“They should pick up the phone on the first ring if possible or call us back if they missed the call so that we can get in touch with them quickly,” Bhavnani said. “Timing is really what's going to make this effective in our community.”

Bhavnani said students should think about the places they went to and people they came into contact with during the days before they developed symptoms. The tracers will ask questions specific to UT, such as what classes that people have been in, buildings where people have studied or dorms where people may be living.

The data is confidential but summarized in a way that allows the team to act quickly and reduce the spread of the disease, Bhavnani said.

Contact tracers support individuals with COVID-19 by ensuring they can self-isolate or self-quarantine effectively, Bhavnani said. One of the resources students are referred to is the Behavior Concerns and COVID-19 Advice Line. The advice line also helps students with other concerns, such as food security, isolation housing and academic communication, Bhavnani said. 

“Half of our job is making sure the people we call know that there are community resources ready to help them during this stressful time,” contact tracer Kate Howk said. 


Contact tracer Mathilda Nicot-Cartsonis said she and her colleagues are strictly forbidden from telling anyone other than their team members anything about who has shown up as a case and who was exposed. 

“Even within the team, we do not share unnecessary information,” said Nicot-Cartsonis, a biology and African and African diaspora studies senior. “We all understand that it is a privilege to work with Dell Medical School and to help the Austin community and … the UT population stem the spread of COVID-19.” 

Bhavnani said names of individuals who test positive will not be shared with their contacts.

“The information that's provided to us will not be used against an individual,” Bhavnani said. “If there were concerns about being at a party when they shouldn't have been … contract tracing is not going to be recording anything that is told to us about these events.”

Nicot-Cartsonis said students are sometimes embarrassed to share all of their contacts because they haven't been following social distancing guidelines. Bhavnani said the team is having trouble figuring out how to appeal to students to disclose information. 

“You can have the virus and spread it, regardless of whether you feel sick,” Bhavnani said. “You can spread it to others … you could take it home to elderly parents or other people in your community that you care about, and they can fall sick and have worse outcomes than you … You wouldn't want your roommates, mother or father to die of COVID-19 because they got it from you.”