Saturday, July 2, 2022

UNCW hoping Saffo’s clout, exemption to federal privacy laws will help curb outbreaks

University of North Carolina Wilmington. (Port City Daily photo / BENJAMIN SCHACHTMAN)
University of North Carolina Wilmington. (Port City Daily photo / File)

Update: Monday, August 31 11:30 a.m. — This past weekend, officials from the university and City of Wilmington continued their discussion over email, and internally circulated drafts of the letter that would be sent to local property managers — the substance of which was very similar to that of a previous letter sent from UNCW’s office of the dean of students.

The letter stated that property managers are poised to play an important role in keeping the community safe, and urges them to remind tenants to comply with Executive Order 155. Bill Saffo and Jose Sartarelli are the signatories, although the copy of the letter obtained by Port City Daily includes only Saffo’s signature. The letter can be read in full at the end of this article. 

WILMINGTON — In the past month UNCW has taken a series of measures designed to optimize the university’s chances of completing the academic year without suffering a COVID-19-related fiasco. 

This includes a tentative arrangement with Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo to help persuade property owners to cooperate in reducing or reporting large gatherings as well as a memorandum of understanding with New Hanover County that allows the sharing of information about individuals with Covid-19 under an exemption to federal privacy laws.

UNCW and Wilmington

An Aug. 21 Zoom meeting invitation included Chancellor Jose Sartarelli, Mayor Bill Saffo, UNCW Chief of Staff Bradley Ballou and City Manager Sterling Cheatham

On Aug. 21, Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo met via Zoom with UNCW Chancellor Jose Sartarelli. The details of the meeting are unclear, but emails exchanged in the following days between City Manager Sterling Cheatham and UNCW Chief of Staff Bradley Ballou shed some light on the meeting’s purpose. 

The emails indicate that UNCW and Wilmington are collaborating on messaging that will be sent out to local property managers in the area, who will be asked to cooperate with efforts to curb large gatherings. 

Three days after the meeting, Ballou emailed Sterling to ask, “Any elements/messages that you or the Mayor would like included in the draft?” 

An email chain between UNCW and Wilmington officials shows that the university is seeking Mayor Bill Saffo’s input for a to-be-released message to off-campus apartment complexes

UNCW has already contacted at least 25 apartment complexes in an Aug. 11 letter that implored the private properties to report instances of large parties to the university, who would then engage the offending students. After the initial letter was sent, the community manager for Hawthorne Commons told Port City Daily that she was concerned about the privacy implications of the request. The recent emails between UNCW and city officials show that a new, similar message is being crafted, but this one will have the backing of Mayor Saffo. 

Related: UNCW asks off-campus apartments to divulge names of students who gather, party in large groups

A spokesperson for Wilmington said Mayor Saffo and Sterling Cheatham were not available for interviews, and the UNCW spokesperson said that UNCW administrators were also not available for an interview; they both provided written statements in response to questions.

Chancellor Sartarelli and Mayor Saffo “may also send a joint message out to property owners and managers to encourage their cooperation and support,” said the spokesperson for UNCW.

The city spokesperson confirmed that a joint letter from the mayor and chancellor is in the works, and that it will soon be sent “to key property managers of large off campus student housing populations asking for their assistance in reminding students about safe health practices regarding the virus.”

The city spokesperson said Wilmington also collaborates with UNCW through the combined efforts of the UNCW Police Department and the Wilmington Police Department. According to a WPD spokesperson, a standing partnership between the two police departments has been in place for around four years.

“The difference this year is that we expected larger and more frequent house parties due to the fact that bars and nightclubs are closed,” the WPD spokesperson said.

WPD will increase its presence in areas surrounding the UNCW campus — through a preexisting program called “Party Patrol” — during the next few weekends, according to the WPD spokesperson. 

The spokesperson said that on Friday, Aug. 21, “Party patrol units responded to 13 calls for loud parties/music playing that resulted in five written noise ordinance violation citations,” and on Saturday, Aug. 22, “Party Patrol units responded to nine calls for service. Three of the calls were unfounded … Officers wrote two noise warnings and three citations.” 

UNCW and New Hanover County

From the memorandum of understanding between UNCW and NHC. (Port City Daily image / NHC)

On Aug. 7, UNCW and the New Hanover County Health Department formalized a “memorandum of understanding,” (MOU) which states that UNCW will disclose the student contact information — consisting of the student’s name, university email address, phone number, campus and home address — of any COVID-19-positive student to the New Hanover County Health Department (you can find a full version of the MOU at the end of this article).

This information would usually be protected by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, however, there is an exception in FERPA that allows for the sharing of private information in the case of “Health and Safety Emergencies.” 

Brooks Fuller, director of the North Carolina Open Government Coalition, said earlier this year the federal government paved the way for entities covered under FERPA, and entities covered under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA), to exchange information for the purposes of contact tracing and other measures designed to counteract the ongoing public health crisis. 

“They can only disclose information in the narrow circumstance to counteract the threat,” Fuller said. “Because of the situation we’re in, it puts a greater responsibility on both entities to be highly protective of student and patient data.”

Upon request from the Health Department, the university will also offer up student contact information for any student determined to have experienced a potential COVID-19 exposure. 

The same is true for UNCW employees; the names and information of any university employee that tests positive for COVID-19, as well as those who could have been exposed to the virus, will be provided to the New Hanover County Health Department. 

In turn, the Health Department will tell UNCW the names of university students and employees that have been independently determined by the Health Department to have been either diagnosed or exposed to the virus. 

The Health Department stated in the agreement that it will only give up this private information to third parties in situations where it is compelled by law to do so. 

This memorandum will allow the County’s Health Department to bolster its ability to effectively conduct contact tracing efforts in the community, by offering the department upgraded access to personal identifying information for infected and exposed individuals. A county spokesperson said this process will be totally confidential and is designed to help slow the spread of the virus.

UNCW’s path forward

UNCW’s collaboration with city and county entities is ramping up as other schools in the UNC System have been forced to roll back campus operations. On Aug. 17, a week after its semester started, UNC-Chapel Hill announced it would move to a totally-virtual class structure for undergraduate education, and N.C. State followed suit on Aug. 24. 

Officials in the statewide higher education system and at individual universities have put the blame on partying students while explaining the rationale for scaling back campus operations.

“Given the impact that off-campus activities had on operations at other universities across the state and nationwide, UNCW and the city are working together to convey the importance of following physical distancing guidelines, including the governor’s mandate to limit attendance at events to 10 individuals indoors and 25 outside,” a UNCW spokesperson said. “The university has spent months developing and implementing safety measures across campus and we will continue to adapt as the situation warrants.”

This week, UNCW announced two clusters of cases have been reported on campus. In Pelican and Graham-Hewlett residence halls, there are five students in each building that are confirmed to have been diagnosed with COVID-19.


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Letter from Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo and UNCW Chancellor Jose Sartarelli – PCD by Ben Schachtman on Scribd

UNCW – NHC agreement to share Covid-19 data by Ben Schachtman on Scribd

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