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VPR Update: Reporting & Responding to Confirmed COVID-19 Cases

July 24, 2020

Dear colleagues,

As we complete our eighth week since opening Northwestern’s campuses for increased research activity during the pandemic, I write to provide an update on our progress. I also want to summarize several University policies that have been communicated over the past month as we entered Step 4 of our phased return to campus. 

First, I want to recognize the tremendous overall effort of our research community in this challenging time. Investigators and administrative staff have continued to be productive on campus and off. In recent months, our researchers have been involved in an array of work to advance our understanding of the novel coronavirus and contribute to testing and treatment efforts. Our Core facilities continue to provide expert assistance and instrumentation to the research community.

Further, our Sponsored Research and IRB Office teams have processed and reviewed hundreds of proposals for projects involving the study of COVID-19, as well as provided guidance to assist researchers in conducting investigations during the pandemic. Likewise, the Research Development office has supported more than 20 faculty across multiple schools and units to match their projects related to COVID-19 with funding opportunities. Among these were three interdisciplinary proposals, totaling more than $50 million, including two from the National Science Foundation and one from DARPA. INVO has also facilitated access to several COVID-19 technologies developed at Northwestern, including an emergency ventilator system and a nasal swab. Research Safety has supported the phased return to campus by distributing more than 800 pandemic supply kits, which include hand sanitizer, disinfectant, PPE, and printed guidance materials. Over the past eight weeks, we also have seen nearly 6,800 people complete our “Pandemic Essentials: Research on Campus” training course, a required part of our phased return. Week by week, daily occupancy on campus has increased too: most recently we have recorded about 3,800 unique Wildcard users in all buildings.

We continue to monitor the trend in COVID-19 cases in our region and to work with our medical experts as we follow the advice of the CDC and local government. Illinois has increased testing to nearly 40,000 people per day, and the positivity rate remains just above 3 percent. Since our reactivation of research, our community recently had its first report of a researcher who tested positive for the virus. This case naturally sparked concern and revealed a need to reiterate the University’s policies. Below, I clarify the process for how Northwestern is currently managing confirmed cases of COVID-19. I also refer you to the University’s health monitoring protocol, which addresses reporting requirements, onsite testing and self-isolation in more detail.   

Diagnosis. Anyone who is diagnosed with COVID-19, or who chooses to self-isolate based on symptom guidelines, is required to notify the University by completing the online Self-Isolation Form

Contact tracing. Once an individual makes an online report, they will be contacted to initiate the contact tracing process. Contact tracing for faculty and staff will be performed by Northwestern’s Office of Environmental Health and Safety (EHS) and for undergraduate and graduate students by Northwestern Health Services (NUHS). The process will identify those who have had close contact with the affected individual over the past 14 days. The CDC defines “close contact” as being within 6 feet of an infected individual for 15 minutes or longer, starting from 48 hours before the onset of the infected person’s symptoms. Close contacts will be informed about their exposure and educated about COVID-19 symptoms. They will be told to monitor their health, seek medical care when necessary, and quarantine according to CDC recommendations. For those who report being symptomatic but undiagnosed as positive for COVID-19, formal contact tracing does not occur. However, EHS or NUHS will engage these individuals to learn more about their cases and to advise them to monitor symptoms and isolate according to CDC guidance — and to seek health care and testing if necessary. If you believe that you may be at risk and that the contact tracing protocol was not rigorous, you can contact EHS or NUHS.  

TestingTesting is available for Northwestern students, faculty, and staff who display symptoms of COVID-19 on campus or who are identified through the University’s contact tracing efforts. Students on campus are seen and tested by NUHS. Faculty and staff will require a referral for testing and be advised by EHS on how to access testing.

Self-isolation. Individuals who test positive for COVID-19 are required to self-isolate according to CDC recommendations. Those who have had direct contact with someone who has tested positive, are expected to quarantine according to CDC recommendations

Returning to campus. Prior to returning to campus after a positive diagnosis or self-isolation, individuals will receive an email to complete a Return to Work Self-Certification (COVID-19). People can either obtain medical documentation from a health care provider or use the CDC guidelines to discontinue isolation to return to work.

In addition, the University has recently implemented an online checklist that all community members are required to complete each day before arriving on campus; you can find this tool at the daily symptom survey page.

We do recognize that many of you would like more information about those in our community who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 and about the on-campus spaces that these individuals occupy. To ensure a transparent flow of information, the University soon will be reporting incidents of positive cases on Northwestern’s COVID-19 website. However, University practice seeks to protect the privacy of those who are diagnosed so that they can focus on their health and not experience additional stress from being publicly identified. This is one reason why Northwestern does not identify individuals or provide information about their activities that could lead to identification. It is also the reason we instruct you not to seek the identity of those who test positive. Similarly, anyone who is aware of the person’s identity should not disclose that information to others. Thank you for your understanding and your consideration of our colleagues.

In the coming months, we will need to diligently follow the Core Responsibilities established to help keep our campus safer. It is important to remember that the use of masks and practice of social distancing protocols remain effective at mitigating the spread of this virus. Frequent cleaning and disinfection of shared surfaces (computer peripherals, phones, light switches, door knobs, etc.) also is important to minimize disease transmission. It is also essential that members of our community report their cases and fully cooperate with the contact tracing process.

I recognize how difficult these past four months have been for your work, for your daily routines and for your families. And I am grateful for your efforts that have enabled Northwestern to rally around this challenge and remain engaged and active in fulfilling our research mission. As we move forward, we will remain vigilant in monitoring the pandemic and implementing policy changes that address the risks associated with the virus.

Thank you for your commitment and partnership in this unprecedented period.  

Milan Mrksich
Vice President for Research