What is actually reported? A look at SIU’s case count

By Danny Connolly & Kallie Cox

On Aug. 20 SIU decided to make general COVID-19 case counts among faculty, staff, and students living both on-campus and off campus available. 

This decision happened the day after SIU faced backlash for keeping these numbers private.

(See More: SIU will not be informing the public of COVID-19 outbreaks on campus; RAs told to keep quiet)

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These general numbers will be announced weekly and as of Aug. 20 the university reported three off campus students tested positive for the virus. 

These numbers do not specify location and they are not comprehensive. 

Additionally, if anyone in the SIU community does not live in Jackson County and commutes to work at SIU, as many of our faculty and staff members do, they will not be included in the SIU count if they test positive for the virus, according to the Williamson County Health Department. 

Williamson County said it is up to the individual to let SIU know they tested positive, their numbers will not be sent to Jackson County and contact tracers will not be responsible for alerting the county of the case.

It is optional for students, faculty and staff to report that they have ties to SIU, according to spokeswoman for the university Rae Goldsmith.

“When people are contacted by contact tracers, they have decisions about what information they are going to release,” Goldsmith said. “They’re not obligated to- let’s say you have an employee who’s working fully remotely. Working full time, never setting foot on campus. That person may or may not tell the  [Jackson] County people that they’re a University employee.”

The numbers also do not include the number or location of students who are in quarantine and awaiting test results.

Goldsmith said this is because it is more difficult to track quarantined cases.

“For example, if i think I might have COVID-19, and I go to my doctor, and he or she says ‘I need you to quarantine,’ that might never go through the health department, unless I take a positive test. Somebody just might choose to quarantine me,” Goldsmith said. “So quarantines are very very difficult to track and count.”

In the spring, SIU was able to alert the community of cases and the location of outbreaks without revealing any student’s identifying information. They did this by using the Clery Act alert system.

So far, the university has not used this alert system this semester.

“In the Spring, we were all new and were trying to figure out what this was,” Goldsmith said. “But in that case, we had positive cases that were associated with the same facility, and under our interpretation of Clery at that time, we were obligated to notify the campus community of it. And we’ll still do that, going forward, we’ll be doing that in consultation with the health department and what it determines to be an outbreak.”

Sam Pavel, vice president of the faculty association, the union for tenure and tenure track faculty at SIU, said the university choosing to release the numbers is a step in the right direction, but it is the minimum. 

“It’s minimum and a lot of that you can kind of glean from the Jackson County webpage but we’re all for transparency, if the idea is to keep people safe then we should know where cases are occurring without identifying individual students or faculty or staff but still, this is a health crisis it’s not like we’re trying to get somebody in trouble, we just want to know to keep people safe,” Pavel said. 

Chancellor Austin Lane said the decision to publish case numbers occurred after discussing the possibility with the Jackson County Health Department and deciding what numbers would be accurate. 

“It was never a policy that we wouldn’t release anything, it was a plan,” Lane said. “So plans can change and so luckily in this case we were able to change that plan and make it available which I think has been a really good thing. That we could do for our campus community.”

Lane said the million dollar question is how to ensure that those affiliated with the university voluntarily report their numbers. 

“There is no control that we have or anybody else has to force someone to say they are a student here or an employee here,” Lane said. “We are urging anyone that may test positive, I know they obviously have the ability not to do this, but we are urging them to, if they are here in Jackson county to be able to let them know so they can alert us and we can move on those protocols.”

Lane said based on his discussions with the health department, SIU has been fortunate and individuals have been forthcoming in stating their affiliation with the university.

When asked how the university would alert students of outbreaks by location, Lane said those who need to know would find out through contact tracing.

“It comes down to the contact tracing and those they may have been around or could have been exposed, so those individuals will get the information almost immediately,” Lane said.

Anna Wilcoxen, the president of Graduate Assistants United, SIU’s graduate student union said releasing these numbers is just one step in the right direction and the next step is for SIU to implement testing.

“I do wish there was testing in a similar way to what UIUC is doing,” Wilcoxen said. “They’ve had a plan in place for a while. We’re still trying to piecemeal everything together.  I can’t even get a straight answer about where testing is going to happen on campus at SIU.”

The Daily Egyptian called the Jackson County Health Department 5 times and left 2 messages but did not hear back as of publication deadline.

Editor in Chief Kallie Cox can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @KallieECox. 

Staff Reporter Danny Connolly can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @DConnollyTV.

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