(08/17/20) EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been updated to correct factual inaccuracies regarding which individual is in charge of hiring contact tracers for UNM’s main campus.
As the infectious spread of the coronavirus multiplies locally and around the country, many students are wondering how the pandemic will impact the University of New Mexico community during the 2020-21 academic year.
With students, faculty and staff beginning the slow, deliberate process of returning to campus on Aug. 17, the University disclosed to the Daily Lobo that 35 people with ties to UNM’s main Albuquerque campus have tested positive for COVID-19.
Two students, one faculty member and 11 staff members from UNM’s main campus have self-reported that they have tested positive for COVID-19, according to University spokesperson Cinnamon Blair.
Those numbers don’t include student-athletes, coaches or other personnel in the Athletics department, nor do they count UNM Health Sciences Center (HSC) testing data. According to Blair, both institutions have different testing protocols in place and track their own data.
Four student-athletes and two Athletics coaches and/or staff members have tested positive since testing began earlier in the summer. Additionally, two students, five faculty members and eight staff members at HSC have tested positive, according to HSC spokesperson Mark Rudi.
“What is clear is that despite months of planning for a safe return to class, and despite drastic changes to campus life, the virus is already spreading widely at universities,” the New York Times recently reported.
In accordance with the Health Information Portability and Accountability Act — a federal law that protects the privacy of most patient health data — individuals who test positive for COVID-19 cannot be publicly identified.
The main campus data was collected in the University’s self-reporting system between April and August. The self-reporting mechanism is the tool that all faculty, staff and students are instructed to use to report if they test positive, Blair said.
According to Blair, the University is in the process of working on a “public facing dashboard” that would add more transparency to the currently-opaque COVID reporting infrastructure.
UNM Hospital and Health Sciences Center currently uses a more robust tracking system than those used by main campus or Athletics due to the utilization of contact tracers.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, contact tracers conduct interviews and test those who have been in close contact with individuals who have tested positive, including “any individual within six feet of an infected person for at least 15 minutes.” In addition to encouraging staff, faculty and students to self-report, HSC is using contact tracers to help identify and proactively test those that may have been exposed to people who are COVID-19 positive.
However, not all academic employees are required to self-report.
“UNM HSC continues to have the majority of our workforce working from home,” Rudi said. “Those academic employees who work from home and contract COVID-19 are not required to report it, but can voluntarily report it.”
Rudi emphasized that all employees deemed essential and others who have been coming to campus for work have been asked to fill out an online screening form, which is described as mandatory but currently has no mode of enforcement.
“All employees are screened before they come to campus, we have stringent cleaning protocols, masks are required in all areas and our robust occupational health service helps employees with what to do if they do test positive for COVID-19,” Rudi said.
Meanwhile, main campus administrators are scrambling to hire contact tracers in an attempt to get ahead of the virus when it inevitably spreads on campus.
Denece Kesler, the director of the Center for Occupational Environmental Health Promotion, is leading the process to get five new state Department of Health contact tracers assigned to main campus.
With the upcoming fall semester, 30-40% of courses have an in-person component and the rest are expected to be provided entirely online, according to Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs James Holloway.
New Mexico has encouraged the state’s schools to move all classes online immediately but hasn’t required higher education institutions to go entirely virtual. Prior to the start of the semester, many faculty and staff were given the option to make their classes remote and have been instructed to follow the protocols outlined in the University’s Bringing Back the Pack guidelines.
Despite large-scale and multiple efforts to contain the spread, tracking at UNM remains largely reliant on self-reported data. And with a campus population of over 30,000 people, it’s a virtual certainty that there have been more than 35 COVID-19 cases among students, staff and faculty affiliated with the University since the pandemic started.
As of Aug. 15, the seven-day positive testing rate in New Mexico has remained between 2.5-3% while case growth has stabilized following a spike in the end of July. Applied to the approximate main campus population of 30,000 people, that percentage would represent 750 to 900 people — which doesn’t take into account international students and those coming from out of state, where percentages of positive cases could be higher.
Right now, reliable COVID-19 figures on UNM’s main campus are elusive. With the University’s coronavirus tracking efforts relying primarily on self-reported data, there remains no way to truly know the number of positive cases in the campus community.
Joe Rull contributed reporting to this article.
Cameron Ward is a freelance reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @xx_cameo_xx