WILMINGTON — Without publicly acknowledging a change in policy, UNCW has stopped disclosing coronavirus “clusters” — defined as five-or-more linked cases of the virus — within its campus community.
Previously, beginning in August 2021, Covid-19 clusters were announced on a university webpage dedicated to “cluster notifications,” according to UNCW’s website.
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As of Wednesday, that webpage had not been updated for five months, giving the impression that there have been no instances of clusters since early September. An email obtained by Port City Daily, however, indicates there were 11 active clusters during the final week of January 2022.
Katrin Wesner-Harts, UNCW student health center director, said in a Wednesday afternoon statement the university “phased out” cluster notifications this spring, as has been common across North Carolina universities.
“Many universities in North Carolina phased out their cluster notifications last fall and other institutions, including UNCW, followed suit this spring,” according to Wesner-Harts. “In December 2021, NCDHHS stopped reporting cluster notifications for higher education. The university continues to focus on increasing vaccination and booster rates, providing easy access to free testing, and promoting prevention practices (such as mask wearing and hand washing).”
Also on Wednesday afternoon, following Port City Daily’s inquiry, a university official edited text on the website, mirroring the language used in Wesner-Harts’ statement, to reflect the new policy of not reporting clusters at all. All previous cluster disclosures from last fall were removed from the website.
The university did not inform the public cluster notifications had ceased prior to the website edits made Wednesday.
During fall 2020, the first full semester of the pandemic, UNCW informed its community about clusters through text messages, emails and social media. The email blasts informed students and faculty where heightened cases were — typically in a residence hall — and the text messages gave immediate notice to employees who could not access email while working.
The term “cluster,” a phrase used by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS), means five-or-more cases of Covid-19 in which the affected individuals are diagnosed within 14 days of each other, and where there is a “plausible epidemiological linkage between cases.” According to the department, congregate living settings, K-12 schools and childcare facilities are required to report clusters to local health departments, but colleges and universities are not.
UNC-Chapel Hill was an early adopter in toning down the messaging of clusters; they decided in August 2020 to whittle down disclosures to solely UNC’s website and social media handles. Until that point, Chapel Hill was sending notices through its in-house emergency notification platform, too.
By then, the U.S. Department of Education had only released a single piece of guidance telling universities how to report coronavirus statistics in accordance with federal law. (The only concrete requirement, which has not changed, is to maintain a Covid-related webpage that acknowledges the need for precautions and links to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. UNCW’s is called “Best for the Nest.”)
An official at the UNC System — which oversees all 16 public universities in North Carolina — relayed news of Chapel Hill’s policy change to the other schools, “in the hopes it may assist you/your campus come to a similar decision.”
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UNCW officials then went back and forth over whether to restrict disclosures of their own, but decided in early September 2020 to retain text and email alerts for the time being. That changed at the start of the fall 2021 semester, when the new policy was rolled out:
“Beginning August 23, 2021, clusters reported under the guidance of the Clery Act will be posted on UNCW’s COVID-19 information website,” according to an archived version of UNCW’s Best for the Nest webpage, which was edited Wednesday:
“Cluster notifications will no longer include social media posts, texts or campus emails. The postings on Best for the Nest will serve as a notification of any COVID-19 clusters to campus per guidance under the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Crime Statistics Act.”
Even after UNCW “phased out” cluster reports, the previous policy remained atop the “cluster notifications” webpage — creating the impression there has not been a cluster at UNCW since September — until it was edited following Port City Daily’s inquiry.
Though no clusters have been reported since early September, the university recently experienced its highest sustained levels of coronavirus on campus. Between Jan. 10 and 24 — around the first two weeks of classes this semester — UNCW averaged around 50 new coronavirus cases per day. The peak came Jan. 18, with 132 cases reported among the student body.
Throughout January, the university reported a total 1,010 cases among students, 125 among faculty and staff, and seven positive tests among contractors. Despite the record numbers, up until Wednesday the university’s cluster webpage presented as if there had not been a cluster in a residence hall since September.
An internal email obtained by Port City Daily indicates there have been numerous clusters on campus since September, including nearly a dozen active clusters in the final week of January.
On Friday, Jan. 28, a “team lead” for Carolina Community Tracing Collaborative — the organization hired by NCDHHS to support local health departments in tracking the transmission of Covid-19 — told local health officials there were 11 active clusters presently on campus, with 195 students involved in the clusters.
“Cases seem to be decreasing as we only received about 92 cases this week compared to last week where we received about 286 cases,” the team lead wrote to local health officials at New Hanover County and UNCW. “I am currently still working to add the athletes to these numbers that have tested positive throughout the month.”
A spokesperson for the UNC System told Port City Daily there is neither a system-wide policy on cluster reporting nor do campuses develop their own policies.
“Campuses work with their county health directors to determine cluster reporting protocols consistent with DHHS and CDC guidance,” the spokesperson said.
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