Staff and students across the New Mexico State University campus are expressing concern over the university’s perceived failure to enforce CDC-recommended COVID-19 safety protocols. Between the apparent lack of contact tracing, difficulties in reporting positive cases and other perceived problems, staff and students are concerned the university isn’t doing enough to keep the campus healthy and safe.
One NMSU student recently had trouble with the online self-reporting portal that is supposed to provide students and staff with an easy and convenient way to report their own COVID diagnoses. Sophomore Pedro Acosta said that he tried to report his positive COVID test result to the university, but the online portal didn’t work.
In response to such complaints about the self-reporting system, vice chancellor and chief COVID officer Ruth Johnston suggested contacting the Aggie Health and Wellness Center. “If you do notice that the portal is not working, please contact Aggie Health and Wellness Center at 575-646-1512 to report a positive case, and be sure to mention that you are not able to use the portal,” Johnston said.
“I’m worried NMSU is covering up the COVID-19 cases. There could be students walking around campus with COVID-19 and we wouldn’t even know it. I’m worried they aren’t keeping count of COVID-19 cases merely to keep the campus open.”
Pedro Acosta said he called the Aggie Health and Wellness Center, but was simply told to keep trying the online portal, even though he mentioned that the site was not working. According to Acosta, the online portal never worked for the entire time he was sick with COVID, and that this has him concerned that other positive cases on campus are going unreported. “I’m worried NMSU is covering up the COVID-19 cases. There could be students walking around campus with COVID-19 and we wouldn’t even know it. I’m worried they aren’t keeping count of COVID-19 cases merely to keep the campus open,” he said.
Students aren’t the only people at NMSU concerned about the health and safety of the university. One NMSU staff member, who asked not to be identified, reached out to Kokopelli recently with concerns over the university’s apparent lack of contact tracing once a COVID-19 case is identified and successfully reported.
This employee reported that after they tested positive for COVID earlier this year, Aggie Health and Wellness Center staff members told the employee they would handle contact tracing for them. Once the staff member returned to campus, however, it was found that the majority of the people who had been in close contact with the staff member in question were never notified that they had potentially been exposed to the virus, nor had they been advised to get tested themselves, both of which are recommended by the CDC under its published contact tracing guidelines.
“I was upset because people who came into contact with me didn’t get tested because the health center never contacted them,” the staff member said.
The employee then personally emailed everyone they had been in close contact with to alert them of their possible exposure. “I felt it was important to let people know I had tested positive because I didn’t want to put [more] people at risk,” they added.
According to Aggie Health and Wellness Center Executive Director Lori McKee, “Only those who were within three feet of a positive person for more than 15 minutes without a mask would be considered close contacts in a classroom setting, so it’s possible the individual was not actually a close contact by that definition.”
McKee’s and NMSU’s definition of “close contact,” however, appears to disagree with the CDC’s definition. The CDC defines “close contact” as “less than six feet away,” while NMSU defines “close contact” as less than three feet away (emphasis added).
CDC guidelines also appear to be at odds with NMSU guidelines when it comes to mask use. CDC guidelines state anyone who’s been in close contact with an infected individual should be tested, regardless of mask use. The official CDC guidelines state: “A person is still considered a close contact even if one or both people wore a mask when they were together.”
The NMSU decision tree, however, states that close contact “means you were within 3 feet, without a mask, for a total of 15 minutes or more.”
The employee who tested positive earlier this year recommended that everyone take the necessary precautions if they think they have been exposed to COVID-19. “Some people probably think they don’t need to be tested because they’ve been vaccinated or they always wear a mask. I would advise anyone, regardless of vaccination status or mask use, to get tested if they have been in close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID,” they said.
Another NMSU employee, who also asked not to be identified, said the university never notified them of potential “close contact” with multiple students who had tested positive. “I only knew I had been exposed because the students themselves told me they were infected. I ended up going and getting tested on my own as a precaution — not because I was officially advised to do it, but because I found out on my own I had been exposed,” the employee said.
Are you an NMSU student or staff member who has tested positive for COVID-19? If so, Kokopelli would like to hear from you.
Kokopelli’s staff publisher and faculty adviser contributed to this report.
For more stories from this exclusive series on COVID safety at NMSU, click on the links below: