Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
Wednesday morning, during a near five-hour Board of Regents meeting in which school officials noted the campus’ low COVID-19 case count relative to other higher education institutions in the region, one of the more sensitive aspects of the University of New Mexico’s handling of the pandemic was put to the test.
A second-year business major who lives in UNM’s Lobo Rainforest apartments was driving back to her apartment from an out-of-town visit with family when she received an email informing her that her roommate had tested positive for COVID-19.
“I was making my way back to Albuquerque, and I was halfway back when I got an email from the (residence) hall coordinator,” the student told the Journal. “He basically just told me in the email, ‘Hey, your roommate tested positive for COVID. If you plan to return before Oct. 26 to let (her) know.’ ”
After then talking to the residence hall coordinator, she decided to turn around and return to her parents’ home on the Navajo Nation, but something else bothered her about the email.
“The email said (the roommate who tested positive) chose to disclose to me that she tested positive, the student said. “Then it got me (wondering). What if she didn’t disclose to me? It’s basically giving students who test positive a choice of whether or not to disclose to their roommates and putting everybody at risk.”
And therein lies the question facing institutions of higher education across the country. What obligation does a university with on-campus residence halls have to inform roommates or even dorm mates who live nearby or just in the same building as a student who tests positive for the coronavirus?
“All positive COVID-19 cases are reviewed by a committee of medical and public health professionals who are authorized to take appropriate action to ensure the health and safety of the individual and the community, including isolation, contact tracing and additional cleaning,” UNM spokeswoman Cinnamon Blair wrote in an email to the Journal. “In reviewing the case, if the committee identifies specific students who may have been exposed via the individual, the university will contact those students and may request they quarantine and be tested.”
But those messages do not relay that the possible exposure could be from somebody they are actually living with or near, just a more general warning that they may have come in contact with somebody who tested positive. That remains something at least a few of the residents of Lobo Rainforest – a facility with six floors and two elevators for access – said should change. It’s also a topic explored by the student newspaper earlier this month in an article pointing out UNM will not identify how many of the school’s cases have occurred in residence halls or in which specific ones.
UNM stands by its interpretation of federal law that specific disclosures could identify the person who tested positive.
Not feeling ‘safe’
Some Lobo Rainforest students, including Sharon Chischilly – the Daily Lobo’s former photo editor, who has worked more recently for the Navajo Times and The New York Times – took to Twitter on Wednesday to spread the news about the situation and express their frustration with UNM choosing not to alert them of the potential exposure.
“I do not feel safe on campus KNOWING (sic) there’s most likely other cases in my building that I’m not being told about,” one student posted.
“The University of New Mexico has not sent an email to the residents at the dorm to warn us,” Chischilly wrote. “The building has six floors and only two elevators plus stairs. The staff isn’t saying anything! Do something. Warn the residents. Do better before the whole building gets COVID.”
Despite those concerns, the New Mexico Higher Education Department told the Journal it works with all colleges in the state to establish reporting guidelines, and believes UNM has the proper system in place for who to alert and when.
“To the state’s knowledge, UNM is adhering to their state-approved reopening plan, which includes protocols for contact tracing, testing, self-isolation, facility disinfection, and quarantine,” said Stephanie J. Montoya, public information officer for the HED. “State protocols require that close contacts of people with positive tests be notified. Close contacts are defined as someone who has spent three minutes or longer within six feet of a COVID-positive person, with or without a mask, during their infection period.”
UNM cases low
In Wednesday’s meeting with regents, UNM President Garnett Stokes noted that, as of that date, UNM had just 99 confirmed cases of COVID-19, compared with more than 600 at a pair of regional schools (Utah State and Nevada) and more than 2,000 at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
Nearly every regent took time to praise the university’s efforts on the COVID front, though transparency and notification issues weren’t discussed. The school’s facilities management web page includes a link for “Temporary Closures for COVID-Related Cleaning” that shows on-campus locations that are shut down both for precautionary reasons and after a positive test was linked to a location, though the site notes a building being listed “does not equate to the confirmed presence of COVID-19 in a facility.”
Lobo Rainforest was listed on the site Wednesday as being temporarily closed for cleaning, with an “all-clear” notation showing Oct. 22, Thursday.
UNM’s relatively low number of campus COVID cases, meanwhile, has begun to inch up. Although Stokes announced just 99 reported cases through Tuesday, UNM’s online COVID dashboard as of Saturday morning showed that count rose to 113 – a 14% increase just since the president’s remarks.