Students who consider going to third-party coronavirus testers in fear of punishment from USC can rest easy — the Health Center won’t report students to Student Affairs if they test positive for COVID-19, said USC Chief Health Officer Dr. Sarah Van Orman.
“I think there’s some students that think that somehow we’re going to report them to the Dean of Students or they’re going to get in trouble,” said Dr. Van Orman. “We’re not actually legally allowed to do that.”
Days after classes began, USC students received a letter from Provost Charles Zukoski and Vice President for Student Affairs Winston Crisp. The letter stated that the university would take names of students attending gatherings, and threatened disciplinary action including probation, suspension or even expulsion. However, some students think these rules discourage students from complying with USC contact tracing.
Contact tracing is an important part of how the university locates and manages COVID-19 cases. This process pairs testing with “detailed information about contacts and activities during the infectious period,” according to the USC COVID-19 Resource Center. As of Sept. 5, the university tested 244 exposed or symptomatic students who were found through contact tracing. Of those tests, 23% tested positive, compared to only 1.8% of total tests.
Andrew Kinoshita, a junior majoring in health and human sciences and public health, organized a petition on Change.org to reform the university’s COVID-19 disciplinary policies. He opposes the “retribution policies” currently enforced by the Student Conduct team and says that fear of punishment pushes students away from getting tested through USC.
“The current policies that punish students for gathering in large groups and partying are not effective in stopping large groups or parties,” said Kinoshita. “What they are effective at is stopping students from complying with USC contact tracing.”
Fear of retribution from the university forces students who show symptoms after large gatherings turn to third-party health care providers to get tested, which sets contact tracing efforts back, said Dr. Van Orman.
“Sometimes [third-party] test results are delayed by a couple days, or [the Health Center is] delayed in finding out about them for a couple of days,” Van Orman said. “And so then, it just means that the circle of exposure has widened by the time we actually do find out about [the outbreak].”
Remy, a USC senior who asked that Annenberg Media only use her first name, experienced frustrations from delays when she tested positive at a third-party provider last week. On Tuesday, she received a negative test through USC. Two days later, she decided to take another test after the boyfriends of two of her roommates tested positive and she had trouble breathing.
This time at the Brentwood Urgent Care Center, where she received a positive result.
“If you think you’re positive and are going to need housing, it is a lot easier to test [through] USC,” Remy said. “I just had to jump through a lot more hoops and confirm my test results.”
In order to quarantine at the USC Hotel, Remy had to reach out to USC on her own and provide paperwork of her positive test. This delay meant spending the night in her apartment with her six roommates, knowing she had tested positive.
To avoid situations like this — and get students the help they need — USC officials encourage students to test through the university. They assure confidentiality for all students, documenting only health-related data.
“We don’t list the name of the person,” said Dr. Van Orman. “But what we do is list the date(s) where there was somebody [around the individual] who was infectious and we provide directions for people about what to do [with this exposure].”
Crisp clarified that the Student Conduct team’s main disciplinary interest is with students hosting large gatherings in violation of public health mandates or university requirements. They primarily receive reports of gatherings and parties from faculty members, staff members, students, and the community. The Student Conduct team does not receive any information gathered by contact tracing and the Health Center.
“I don’t want to give people the impression that somehow we have capability, or the ability to chase down every student who goes to a party,” Crisp said. “We’re not trying to set up or create sort of a big brother.”