How does USN handle contact tracing?

Health Team Director Margee Brennan, MD, details how close contacts are identified and why a large group will occasionally move to short-term remote learning.
By Margee Brennan, MD, Health Team Director

Your family may have been the recipients of a call or email notifying you that your child or children have been identified as a close contact while at University School of Nashville. Some of you have even heard from us more than once. Although we say we follow CDC and Tennessee Department of Health guidelines we thought we’d let you know what that looks like from our end. 

First, we get a notice that someone in the USN community has had a positive test or that they have symptoms that are particularly suggestive of COVID-19; for example, they have a fever, cough, and have lost their sense of smell. We then evaluate all the ways they interact with the rest of the USN community.

For instance, for a Middle School student, we identify their travel group, advisory, lunch group, electives, extracurricular involvement, and After School attendance if applicable. We talk to their teachers, advisors, coaches, and counselors. We look at seating charts & attendance records and visit classrooms to measure desks’ distances if we think it is helpful. We talk to the student to ask about their perceptions of whom they feel they have close contact.

We do our best to identify those who meet the CDC’s criteria of a close contact, which is someone who has been within 6 feet for 15 or more minutes in a 24-hour period of a person diagnosed with COVID-19. The infectious period that the USN Health Team is working with starts 48 hours before the student either tests positive or develops COVID-19 symptoms. Since test results usually take hours to days to come back, there is often some delay in starting the process. 

We follow this same general process for each division, faculty, staff, and administrators. Since everybody has different activities, locations, and schedules, it can be a time-consuming process and often continues to unfold with time. That is why we sometimes cast a wide net initially, for instance by sending an entire travel group home or a whole grade for a day or two while we gather the information with the hopes of streamlining those who are quarantined for the full time to those that meet the criteria more closely of close contact.

We work within the constraints of patient confidentiality. Although there are situations where our adult patients allow us to share their identity, we can’t ethically do that with your students. On the other hand, some students have shared their results with a few friends or the whole class. It then seems like it might be easy for some to exclude themselves from being close contacts. However, it is rarely as straightforward as it seems. We do our best to evaluate each situation and develop the most cautious solution for the USN community while being thoughtful of the value and importance of in-person learning. 

While the numbers on our dashboard at ebb and flow, we have seen our efforts pay off with little to no evidence of in-school transmission. We will continue our efforts and appreciate your patience and understanding. Our goal, as always, is to mitigate spread at school.

Also visit and bookmark for answers to questions families frequently ask USN’s medical doctors, nurse practitioners, registered nurses and links to public health resources.

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