JSU’s COVID-19 task force chief discusses pandemic planning, contact tracing

Jeff Ryan, pictured left, is a JSU professor of emergency management and has served as the university’s COVID-19 task force head since the inception of the pandemic. (Courtesy of JSU)Jeff Ryan, pictured left, is a JSU professor of emergency management and has served as the university’s COVID-19 task force head since the inception of the pandemic. (Courtesy of JSU)

Scott Young, Editor in Chief

Since the inception of the pandemic, Dr. Jeff Ryan, a JSU professor of emergency management, has led JSU’s COVID-19 task force, a group tasked with pandemic planning and contact tracing on campus.

For Ryan, preparations for the pandemic began as early as January.

“It started with a text message from Dr. [Tim] King to me saying, ‘Hey, this thing about COVID. What should we be doing? Should we be planning for it?’” said Ryan.

That’s when the university began preparing a contingency plan to determine what would take place if the virus made its way on campus, putting together six separate scenarios, Ryan said. Later, JSU canceled in-person classes on March 12, one day before the first case of COVID-19 made its way to the state.

“But then, how do you get everybody back on campus and how do you do that safely and how do you prepare the campus?” Ryan asked.

Ryan explained that he also chaired the university’s reopening committee whose role was to look at every aspect of the campus community — everything from “student life to staff operations to athletics” — and develop a plan to allow students to safely return to campus in the fall.

“The task force has been very active in all of those endeavors and so what we’ve done is planning,” said Ryan.

When classes began, the university was monitoring 44 active cases of COVID-19, which quickly made its way up to 219 cases by Sept. 1. As of Wednesday, the university is currently reporting 30 active cases of COVID-19 being monitored by the task force.

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“I don’t think there was really any surprise that we had the number of cases that we did in that first two-week period,” said Ryan. “A lot of that was due to social activities that were happening on and off campus. Some of it in the dormitories. Some of it in some local establishments.”

Ryan stopped short of naming any local establishments, explaining that if he provides too many details, it might lead people to generalize about “this particular group or that particular place,” and that he’s “trying not to step on anybody’s right to privacy.”

“Reality is that students are gonna come on campus,” he said. “Some of them are gonna go and party, and they did.”

Several patrons of Brother’s Bar are shown at a concert on Aug. 22, many without a mask and not social distancing. An attendee later said that he tested positive for COVID-19. (Instagram photo by Hunter Chastain)

One party in particular took place on Aug. 22 at a concert at Brother’s Bar in Jacksonville, where a photo was taken showing several people unmasked and not social distancing. One attendee later said that he tested positive for COVID-19.

As a result of the initial surge in cases, the university placed restrictions on student activities on campus, Ryan noted, in addition to working with the community to prevent spread of the virus.

“Because of that, we needed to do certain things, and those certain things were to … try to get the community to look at some things, some measures they could take with respect to certain establishments doing things that were not safe or were inconsistent with state and local guidelines for social distancing and mandatory mask wearing,” he said.

Rapid testing ‘enables’ public safety

Over the summer, the university acquired a rapid, 15-minute test that can “accurately test” for COVID-19, according to Ryan.

“Our charge was to preserve public safety on the campus and so what we knew we had to do was we had to get a rapid test that was accurate and could be done with low complexity,” said Ryan.

The tests come from Quidel, a healthcare product manufacturer headquartered in San Diego, Calif., and are known as antigen capture tests that detect the presence of the COVID-19 antigen. In May, the Food and Drug Administration issued an emergency use authorization to allow Quidel to produce and distribute these tests.

Ryan explained that making decisions that impact public safety on campus was very frustrating when “it takes you five or six days to get the result of that test back,” but now students can receive results in as little as 15 minutes.

Any student, faculty or staff may receive this testing from the Student Health Center for free with their JSU ID if they are experiencing symptoms.

“Having that kind of result enables you to do public safety, to do those measures and mitigations,” said Ryan.

Process of contact tracing

If there’s one group of people that Ryan wants the public to praise for their work, it’s the epidemiological team, or EPI team, who conduct JSU’s contact tracing under the leadership of Allison Newton, a JSU assistant professor of emergency management.

Allison Newton, pictured, is a JSU assistant professor of emergency management and the faculty member in charge of the university’s epidemiological team.(Courtesy of JSU)

“As we learn about a test positive, we assign those cases directly to members of the EPI team and the EPI team do the contact tracing, they immediately call that person, they have a conversation with them, they tell them what they need to know about isolation and they also are able to address their medical concerns,” said Ryan.

The EPI team is made up of faculty and staff from the nursing program, according to Ryan, who stressed the importance of a contact tracing team having medical credentials.

“So, if they need medical advice, since they’re touching base with these people everyday, they can get that medical advice they need,” he said.

When a student tests positive for the virus at the health center or self-reports their positive result, a contact tracer is immediately assigned to them and they are asked to self-isolate for 10 days, according to Ryan.

“You need to have a conversation with that person so that you’re actually trying to determine who they may have exposed, whether it was on campus or off campus,” said Ryan.

If someone within the campus population has been exposed to that positive patient, then the EPI team will notify that student and ask that they self-quarantine for 14 days. For those wondering why the isolation period for exposed patients is longer than infected patients, Ryan explains that it all boils down to the incubation period of COVID-19.

“Symptoms resolve and people go through the course of infection quicker than the incubation period that has been noted for COVID-19 in some of the studies that were done in China, Europe and, subsequently, in the United States,” he said.

Ryan said that one of things most misunderstood in contact tracing is what constitutes exposure, explaining that, even if you were in the same room as a positive patient, as long as you’re maintaining social distance and wearing a mask, your exposure was likely minimal.

“That’s why it’s so important that the contact tracer has a medical background and understands public health,” he said. “We need people that can apply the rules smartly so that we can assess exposure. We don’t overdo quarantine in situations like you might find in the K-12 community where people are not necessarily applying the fact that people are wearing masks or not.”

During the peak of the initial surge from re-entry, many of these contact tracers had 30 or more cases that they were following while some were teaching a full classload, said Ryan.

“I couldn’t be working with a better team of people right now than the people that are doing the contact tracing,” he said.

‘Be a responsible adult’

Moving forward, the biggest piece of advice Ryan has for students is to “be a responsible adult,” which largely involves wearing a mask.

Dr. Tim Lindblom, the dean of the School of Science, explains the importance and effectiveness of wearing a mask to slow the transmission of COVID-19.

“Be cognizant of people around you,” said Ryan. “Your wearing a mask is probably the most important thing you can do for yourself and people around you.”

Observed mask compliance in the United States, according to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, sits at right around 45 percent. Ryan said that number is a lot higher in other countries.

“I think in Singapore the mask compliance rate since the beginning of the pandemic is somewhere in the neighborhood of around 95 percent,” he said. “In those cultures, since SARS changed the way people behaved in public, they wear masks all the time especially during flu season.”

He explained that wearing a mask will keep transmission projections low, and that relaxing restrictions would result in “five or six times the amount of transmission.”

“If we’re all doing that to a high degree, we’re being responsible adults and we’re going to greatly lessen the infection,” he said.

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