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Staff photo by Wyatt Massey / Layra Navarro, COVID-19 contact tracing specialist, works in the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga library on Nov. 19, 2020 as part of the university contact tracing team.

Empty white folding chairs lined the grass of Chamberlain Field Thursday at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, where in a few hours undergraduates would sit for a physically distanced commencement ceremony.

The celebration came as the university neared the end of its fall semester, a 16-week session executed under the constant threat of the coronavirus pandemic. As of Friday, the campus reported 57 active cases.

For Dawn Ford, assistant provost for teaching and learning at UTC, completing the semester came down in part to the efforts of her team, headquartered on the fourth floor of the nearby campus library.

"It's an enormous feat to contact trace these cases as well as we have," Ford said. "And really, this work has enabled us to stay on campus the entire semester."

Ford leads the university's contact tracing team, a group of staff and volunteers who connect people to resources such as testing and keep the campus informed about quarantining and possible exposures.

Anyone connected with the university with symptoms or who thinks they were exposed is asked to fill out a form that is sent to the contact tracing team. Around 100 forms arrive some days, Ford said, and many require a follow-up phone call. Any patient who tests positive is asked for a list of their close contacts, which, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, includes any person within 6 feet of an infected person for 15 minutes or more.

"It's not always black or white," Ford said. "Some people definitely know for sure and some people say, 'No, we were 10 feet apart.' But sometimes they're not sure, so we always err on the side of caution. If it was close, we consider that person a close contact. And then all close contacts are contacted by the contact tracing teams and interviewed and asked to quarantine, if they are on campus."

The contact tracing efforts at UTC are winding down just as the pandemic is surging across the county. Ford said her team will return to helping the Hamilton County Health Department after the semester, something the group did throughout the summer before the school year began.

Cases in Hamilton County continue to break records. In the past week the county averaged 219 new cases a day, a record, with a test positivity rate of 16%, another record. The number of active cases has jumped to 2,208, prompting Hamilton County Schools to shift its reopening schedule to send high school students home for more virtual learning after the Thanksgiving Break.

At the same time, hospitalizations are ratcheting upward. On Friday, 124 people were in the hospital with 26 people in the intensive care unit. A month earlier, on Oct. 20, those numbers were 78 and 20, respectively.

The health department currently employs 40 case investigators and is looking to hire more, a jump from the 28 staff employed for the task in June. Becky Barnes, health department administrator, said the department also uses the state-contracted company Xtend Healthcare for help.

The health department has contacted people who refuse to quarantine or isolate, Barnes said. Others will not cooperate with an interview.

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Contact tracing in Chattanooga

Meanwhile, as coronavirus fatigue worsens, people are moving around more and coming into contact with more people. Some contact lists have numbered in the hundreds, Barnes said. Large gatherings, such as exposures at weddings or parties, can exponentially increase a health department's contact tracing workload as it attempts to follow up with every potential contact of every new case.

In total, the health department has been able to link about half of all known cases in Hamilton County, meaning the infection can be connected to a previously reported positive case. However, since October, the department has been able to link 39% of new cases.

Many of the new cases are driven by small private gatherings, a worrying trend ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday when millions of Americans are still planning to travel to see loved ones. Local health officials have urged residents to shift their Thanksgiving plans to virtual gatherings and only celebrate with those inside the same household.

Contact Wyatt Massey at wmassey@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.

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