OU international and exchange students are taking on the burden of entering quarantine following COVID-19 exposures and positive tests as they lack access to the Healthy Together app — the institution’s primary source of “honors system-based” contact tracing. 

International and public administration master’s student Sandra López-Alvarado is from Mexico. She said, during one of the first weeks of school, she developed what she initially thought were cold symptoms or seasonal allergies. 

López-Alvarado said she received positive test results from an at-home PCR test, and she decided to go to Goddard to ensure her results. When her Goddard test came back positive, she called housing and was moved from Traditions East to Traditions West to quarantine. 

She said the two weeks she spent in a separated community with 200 girls were emotionally taxing.  

“When I tested positive, I was like ‘I got (COVID-19) now. I don’t want to die. I don’t want to do this,’” López-Alvarado said. “(Quarantine) was not that hard, but it was just stressful.”

OU’s reliance on the Healthy Together app for contact tracing didn’t help with her move into quarantine, as the app is region blocked, according to the app’s user terms of service. Effective Sept. 13, people from or living in the European Economic Area — a trade agreement containing most of western Europe that expand the European Union’s market to states of the European Free Trade Association — cannot access the app.

Johannes Korg, an English and sport junior from Paderborn University in Germany, was exposed, tested positive and quarantined in late September. He said most international students cannot download the app, which made contacting the university “more complicated.”

Korg was left to reach out to everyone he had recently been in contact with so they could test for COVID-19. Fortunately, he said most of them were negative, but, even after he emailed OU Housing and Food, he could not access the Healthy Together app. 

A university spokesperson wrote in an Oct. 12 email to The Daily that 5,286 OU community members have signed up for the Healthy Together app, as of Oct. 11. Approximately 331 individuals from the Norman campus filled out a daily survey to clear them to come to campus, which is logged in the OU COVID-19 dashboard. There are 28,052 students on the Norman campus in Fall 2021, and there were 1,996 faculty and 7,135 staff members in Fall 2020.

In an Oct. 15 email, the university spokesperson wrote the Healthy Together app supports phone numbers from the U.S. and its territories, Canada and most of the Caribbean on iOS devices, but Android users should not be region-blocked. They also said the university acknowledges community members “who either cannot or choose not” to use the Healthy Together app. 

The spokesperson wrote that those who do not use the app should follow Section II, Number 2 of OU’s Phase IV Plan in the case of COVID-19 exposures or positive test results. This section stipulates that individuals quarantine, call housing if they live on campus and notify anyone with whom they’ve been in close contact within a 48-hour window.

Samantha Hepburn, an OU economics and political science pre-law sophomore from the Bahamas who can access the app wrote in an email she feels it has helped identify symptoms and direct students. However, she said she wishes OU had a “standard COVID-19 quarantine procedure” beyond leaving contact tracing up to students.

“(OU) never contacted me (about my exposure), I just knew through the person telling me that they tested positive,” Hepburn wrote. “The university knew that I was self-quarantining but, because I had not tested positive, and there wasn’t any contact tracing on campus, it was left up to my own discretion on whether I followed quarantining protocols or not.”

Like Hepburn, Korg and López-Alvarado said OU didn’t inform them of their exposure. López-Alvarado said she was made aware that she was exposed, and Korg said he doesn’t know where he was exposed. All three students said they used their judgment and told those they had been in contact with that they had been exposed or tested positive.

University quarantine policy states that individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19, vaccinated or not, must self-isolate for 10 days. Throughout Korg’s 10 days in quarantine, he was not tested and only had to communicate his symptoms on the second to last day. 

When Korg contacted the university on his ninth day in quarantine, saying he was no longer symptomatic, they released him on the following day.

As a potential solution, Korg drew from his experience in Germany, where they use QR codes for contact tracing in public buildings and transportation.

“For example, when you go on the bus, and when a person is positive (with) COVID, he or she is able to put that into an app and you get information that you have been on a bus with a person who might have been infected (and are encouraged to) test yourself,” Korg said. “That’s pretty convenient because you (could) just scan a QR code whenever you enter a classroom.”

López-Alvarado said OU’s “honors system” policy for contact tracing places “a lot of responsibility” on the person who contracted or was exposed to COVID-19. For example, she said she had to inform her roommate about her positive test, and her roommate wasn’t contacted when she was released.

“When I came back, she was just like, ‘What are you doing here,’ and I’m just like, ‘Don’t worry, I’m free,’” López-Alvarado said. 

A policy López-Alvarado said she wishes the university would implement is constant check-ups via email for students who don’t have access to the Healthy Together app.

Hepburn wrote she believes students should “never have to choose between their education and their health,” and OU should prioritize their safety through more specific contract tracing.

“I know people will be a little irresponsible. I totally understand — you’re young, you don’t want to use the mask if there’s a crush (and) you want (them) to see your face, if you want to smile and you want to laugh,” López-Alvarado said. “But the reality is that everybody should be responsible. I know that, yes, maybe I was irresponsible (when I was exposed), but I’ve learned from my mistakes. It was hard. It was not nice. I really wish I didn’t catch (COVID-19).”

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