Students demand UT-Austin change COVID-19 reporting policy in residence halls

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Photo Credit: Jamie Hwang | Daily Texan Staff

Some students are asking UT to change the COVID-19 case notification system in residence halls, which currently informs residents’ primary and secondary contacts who test positive, not the entire residence hall. 

However, UT officials say the current policies comply with legal statutes and help prevent alarm fatigue.

Yliana Roland, a radio-television-film freshman, started a petition Sept. 1 asking the University to change its policy and inform all residents of positive cases in residence halls. She wrote that  it is inefficient to inform a fraction of people who may be exposed to COVID-19 in residence halls. The petition currently has more than 1,170 signatures as of Thursday evening.

“No names need to be made public for privacy and safety reasons, but it’s ludicrous to not provide full transparency to residents and workers, most of whom either pay thousands of dollars to attend this institution, or work tireless hours to make a living here,” the petition said.

University Health Services and University and Housing and Dining sent an email to residents Thursday morning saying federal laws prevent UT from notifying everyone in a residence hall of a positive case when increased risk of transmission is unlikely.

“Our current approach is needed based on current public health guidance and principles of transmission,” the email said. “If a resident on the first floor contracted the virus, someone on the third floor would have no greater risk than they would in all other areas of their life.”

Undeclared freshman Jocelyne Covarrubias said she signed the petition because the reporting policy makes her nervous about living in close proximity to other students in the residence halls.

“I thought UT was going to … (let) everybody know how many cases are within certain residence halls, but I was furious when I found out they’re not doing (so),” Covarrubias said. “We live here, we touch the same elevator buttons, we walk the same hallways, we go to the same study rooms.”

Covarrubias said she understands the need to avoid alarm in reporting cases but feels the University doesn’t seem to recognize the risks her and other students face. She said she has seen students violate social distancing guidelines in residence and dining halls.

Terrance Hines, UHS chief medical officer, said in an email that the University is open to listening to and addressing student concerns.

“Given the potential of asymptomatic, pre-symptomatic, or mildly symptomatic spread, it is best not to rely (on) notifications but rather be diligent with precautions,” Hines said.

Business freshman Victoria Stuart, who also signed the petition, said not knowing whether anyone in her residence hall has tested positive makes her nervous.

“The hallways are very narrow,” Stuart said. “We can only go in (to the residence halls) from the front desk entrance, so there’s not a lot of options for avoiding other people.”

The Daily Texan has reported four cases of COVID-19 in on-campus University residence halls. As of Sept. 10, the UT-Austin COVID-19 Dashboard reports 318 students have tested positive for the coronavirus since school started Aug. 26. 

Hines said public health practices do not support contact tracing for common areas as opposed to those in close contact with the patient. 

“We hope to provide reassurance that as long as students are following the social distancing, masking, and hand washing guidance, they are at no greater risk passing one another in the building than they would be (anywhere else),” Hines said. 

Editor’s note: The creator of the petition is a Daily Texan opinion columnist. She had no influence in the reporting of this story.