The state representative from Arizona State University’s district is seeking answers after a Reddit user claiming to be a university instructor said they were prohibited from warning students about a COVID-19 exposure.
“I was told i [sic] could only encourage my other students to get tested but could not tell them someone who they were just in class with earlier this week tested positive because it would ’cause unnecessary panic,'” the user wrote on the ASU subreddit.
After the story was re-posted by a Twitter account that shares alleged ASU COVID-19 case locations, Representative Athena Salman condemned ASU’s alleged practice as “completely reckless”:
It is completely reckless for a major Arizona university to be not only withholding this information from faculty, but then prohibiting faculty from alerting students of a potential #COVID19 exposure when they do find out about one. ???? https://t.co/1RH7mmvqKg
— Rep. Athena Salman (@AthenaSalman) August 28, 2020
Salman, a Democrat whose district includes the university’s Tempe campus along with parts of Mesa and Scottsdale, told Phoenix New Times that she’d heard similar stories from a few other students and faculty members.
“This goes against what epidemiologists and other health experts have recommended,” she said.
State Representative Athena Salman represents District 26, which includes the ASU campus.
Salman said she’s concerned about an outbreak from campus spreading into the rest of the community and is putting together a list of questions for ASU that could lead to further action in the next few weeks.
Though the legislature is currently out of session, Salman said there are other ways to apply pressure. But she told New Times it was too early to speculate on what those might be before she had more information.
ASU spokesperson Jay Thorne said he understands people are worried about COVID-19, but the university is limited by federal student privacy laws that limit the release of health info.
“COVID-19 is not an exception to public health laws,” he said.
Even if the university were to only inform the class that someone in it had tested positive, it would be easy for students to guess who that was based on their absence, he said. Instead, the university contacts specific students who came in close contact with the person who tested positive.
Joanne Vogel, ASU’s vice president of Student Services, told student paper The State Press earlier this month that “close contacts” would be notified the same day. Thorne said this is still the case. Close contacts were defined as being within six feet, for at least 10 minutes, of a person who tested positive.
While students are allowed to inform anyone they want of their positive COVID-19 test result, instructors aren’t allowed to pass along that information under the current policy, due to the privacy restrictions, Thorne said. Asked if students could waive those privacy rights, he said he would check with the university’s counsel.
“Once you start to put faculty in that position it gets very murky,” he said.
An ASU junior told New Times one of the members of her six-person lab group had tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this week and she had not been notified by the university. The student, who asked not to be identified, said the lab required in-person attendance in a stuffy room that lacked ventilation, and as part of the group work they had to temporarily remove their masks to use the equipment.
“If she did not tell me [she tested positive], I would not know,” said the student. She’s concerned because she helps take care of her grandmother and great grandmother and could have exposed them to the virus by accident otherwise.
“I’m putting all my family and children at risk,” she said. The student plans to get tested on Monday, the soonest appointment she could find, but worries about returning to a classroom where many were exposed and might not have known it.
Thorne, the ASU spokesperson said he couldn’t comment on the specifics of that situation without knowing more, but that he would find out how the university is currently defining “close contacts” who need to be notified.
Erasmus Baxter is a staff writer for Phoenix New Times.