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With Cases Surging, Colleges Turn To Students For Help

Shelby Dorsey, a student contact tracer at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, tries to calm anxious people and give them health-related guidance.
Shelby Dorsey, a student contact tracer at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, tries to calm anxious people and give them health-related guidance.

Lately, Echo Fridley has had a raspy voice and a sore throat. Not from illness but from many hours on the phone talking with other students about quarantine and isolation, as a contact tracer at Syracuse University.

"I'm definitely super-overwhelmed," says Fridley, a junior studying public health and biology. "We've seen such an explosion of cases."

The spike in coronavirus cases on campuses nationwide comes at a particularly bad time: the final days before the Thanksgiving break. For many colleges, that will also mark the end of in-person instruction for the fall semester and the return of these students to their home communities.

At Syracuse last week, there were about 200 new student cases in just five days. More than 600 students are in quarantine, and the university moved classes online until the end of the year.

Throughout this unusual fall semester, as campuses have seen caseloads rise, contact tracers have been an essential tool in the fight to stop that spread. But at times, that task has proved to be overwhelming: An outbreak at a big party can mean hundreds of phone calls. So for help, colleges across the U.S. have turned to their own students.

Olive Panumpabi, a senior studying integrative physiology and nursing, makes calls at Champaign-Urbana's public health department.
Elissa Nadworny / NPR
Olive Panumpabi, a senior studying integrative physiology and nursing, makes calls at Champaign-Urbana's public health department.

"I'm not a public health official that's going to yell at them. I'm a student too," explains Diana Morales, a contact tracer and junior at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Most days she's tasked with calling people — often fellow students — who tested positive for the coronavirus and must isolate. Or she's calling close contacts of those people and letting them know that they've been identified and must quarantine.

She says her main mission is to make people feel comfortable. "I'll just add little phrases like, 'Oh, that's cool' or 'I feel that!' or 'Sweet!' "

Morales makes her calls from a large room at the local health department alongside more than a dozen other callers. In many ways, it feels like the epicenter for the coronavirus in her college town: Posters on the wall list known outbreaks (back in September it was mostly sororities and fraternities), and there are rows of desks surrounded by plexiglass, giving off a tech-startup vibe.

On the day NPR visited, we heard snippets of conversations from ongoing calls: Are you able to quarantine? Do you have any of the following symptoms? Can you think of anyone you've had close contact with that's tested positive?

In a call with a student living in a sorority who tested positive, a contact tracer tries to figure out how the student on the line caught the virus. There's about a minute of silence and then: Oh, the boyfriend! Looks like we found the culprit. He owes you one.

Often, a contact tracer is the first human a student talks to after the student tests positive.

Sarah Bellatti is a student contact tracer at the University of Colorado Boulder. One of the biggest challenges for Bellatti — as well as contact tracers throughout the U.S. — is compliance.
Elissa Nadworny / NPR
Sarah Bellatti is a student contact tracer at the University of Colorado Boulder. One of the biggest challenges for Bellatti — as well as contact tracers throughout the U.S. — is compliance.

Shelby Dorsey, a junior studying theater at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, sees herself as a COVID-19 therapist. She says it's her job to give out health information and set folks at ease — for example, when a student sheepishly tells her they've been at a popular student bar.

"We're not here to chastise," she says. "I'll say like, 'Oh, I miss going to the bars.' Like, I'm not here trying to judge you."

Not all contact tracers go into an office. In Boulder, Colo., Sarah Bellatti set up a desk in the corner of her off-campus group house to make her tracing calls, surrounding the spot with gauzy curtains for a bit of privacy.

"Talking to strangers can be nerve-wracking sometimes," says Bellatti, a senior studying integrative physiology and public health at the University of Colorado Boulder. This far into the semester, she doesn't need her script for the calls, but she always has it up on her screen in case she encounters someone who's agitated or who "doesn't really want to speak with you."

For her contact-tracing calls, Bellatti set up a desk in her living room, with curtains for privacy.
Elissa Nadworny / NPR
For her contact-tracing calls, Bellatti set up a desk in her living room, with curtains for privacy.

One of the biggest challenges for Bellatti — as well as contact tracers throughout the country — is compliance: Even getting students to pick up a call can be an issue. At the University of Illinois, the school's leadership sent an email asking students to save the health department's numbers in their phones, so they wouldn't screen out those numbers.

And then there's the question of whether students will listen when they're told to quarantine or isolate. "You can hear a student's resistance in the first few minutes," says Bellatti. "They talk slowly, and they ask very few questions: 'Is this a scam?' And they say, 'Wait a minute? So I can't go to the gym? Who's enforcing this?' "

Enforcement is a big challenge, and student contact tracers said that while they hope students are truthful with them, they don't have many options if a student is lying.

Echo Fridley, at Syracuse, has talked with students who try concealing whom they've been hanging with and for how long. "Sometimes they'll change their stories while we're on the phone."

Other students will say they're quarantining, "but I can hear people hanging out in the background," Fridley says. With the recent spike on campus, she's had a particularly hard time tracking people down and confirming they are following the rules.

Emily Williams, a senior at the University of Illinois who's studying community health, confers with a supervisor on a case.
Elissa Nadworny / NPR
Emily Williams, a senior at the University of Illinois who's studying community health, confers with a supervisor on a case.

With Thanksgiving break approaching and classes now online, many students have been heading home early. "People are scared they're gonna get trapped," she says, "so they're jumping on planes and going all over the country."

It has made her job especially challenging: "I feel like I'm the bad guy," she says. "Telling [students] they have to go into quarantine, that's one of the hardest jobs. And I get it — like just being alone in a hotel room for two weeks just does not sound appealing for most people."

Max Onderdonk, another contact tracer at Syracuse, had to quarantine himself earlier this semester. When he's making his calls, he offers his own experience as advice: "Fourteen days of underwear, that's really the biggest thing."

He also reminds them to bring some entertainment. For Onderdonk, that meant "a lot of '90s hip-hop albums and a lot of Sopranos." By the end of his quarantine, he'd made it to season four.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.