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Over a month into the fall semester, Montana State University’s contact tracing remains largely dependent on student cooperation as it continues the effort it launched last year with its own case managers.

The university again used federal coronavirus relief dollars to hire four part-time case managers who help the Gallatin City-County Health Department contact trace for positive cases found via on-campus testing.

While the university didn’t share how much its contact tracing efforts cost, it comes from the $29 million of federal COVID-19 relief money it received in the most recent round of funding.

It’s been the same since the start of the pandemic with everyone who tests positive for the virus encouraged to cooperate when contact tracers reach out to them, MSU spokesperson Michael Becker said in an emailed response to questions.

One of the university’s contact tracers reached by the Chronicle was unavailable for an interview.

Both Becker and Joanna Walker, contact tracing supervisor with the health department, said the level at which people are cooperative with the process affects the success of all contact tracing, for both MSU and the county.

“It’s a barrier that we’ve been trying to figure out how to navigate even before school started,” Walker said. “… I think it’s just important to reiterate to the students that it’s really vital that you tell all of your close contacts and get that information to us.”

Contact tracing in the university classroom can be tough, Walker said. Unlike a K-12 setting, there aren’t seating charts and often students aren’t familiar with the names and contact information of their classmates who might have been close contacts, she said.

“There is a privacy concern because they are adults,” she said, adding it was up to the student to get the close contact information the health department was not able to.

The university hasn’t seen any difference in the level of cooperation form last year to now, Becker said.

“Contact tracing has never been — not by MSU, the county, the state, or any entity — a perfect tool,” Becker said.

“It is simply one tool among many that is employed to help slow the spread of the virus.”

A faculty member would also not be notified a student in their classroom tested positive for COVID-19, according to the university. Only close contacts would be notified, Becker said, adding it was the same protocol the university and county has followed all of last year.

As of Sept. 23, the university had 50 active cases, according to the health department’s weekly report. And MSU administered 343 COVID-19 tests last week, according to Becker.

While the university has its own contact tracers, Gallatin City-County Health Department still receives positive COVID-19 results from MSU students or faculty who are identified from Bozeman Health or other health care providers in the county, Walker said.

In those instances, the health department’s team conducts the contact tracing, alerts the contact tracers at MSU and the university has case managers who help set up the student with additional supports.

The health department and MSU do take note of on-campus versus off-campus cases, with students in university housing getting quarantine and isolation housing.

As of Thursday morning, there were eight individuals in isolation housing and zero quarantined, according to the university.

The total number of available quarantine and isolation housing units is monitored and adjusted as students rotate in and out, Becker said.

For students who live off-campus and have housemates, the health department has a few rooms at the old Rodeway Inn available for quarantine and resources to get groceries or over-the-counter medicine.

Communication between the health department and MSU’s contact tracers is pretty seamless, with the two entities using the same software to track numbers and talking almost daily day, Walker said.

MSU continued to encourage people to get vaccinated, offering students, faculty and staff a free vaccine from University Health Partners.

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Liz Weber can be reached at lweber@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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