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Contact Tracing

Contact tracing involves identifying people who have come into close contact (less than 6 feet for greater than 15 minutes) with someone known to be positive because of a positive COVID-19 test administered onsite at the Health Service, through an offsite referral or screening administered by Northwestern Medicine.

If the individual is an undergraduate student living in Northwestern residence halls, the student will may be moved to specialized housing for the period of self-isolation. Northwestern will coordinate cleaning, food service, and other logistics for residential students in self-isolation. 

All students, whether residential or off-campus, who are COVID positive, in self-isolation, and known to the University will receive daily tele-health checks from members of a team and overseen by NUHS.

Northwestern continues to develop a group of contact tracers who have undertaken the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Contact Tracing online course. These individuals are overseen by Student Health (students) and Environmental Health and Safety (faculty and staff).

General Contact Tracing Process

  1. When a positive case occurs, the individual is contacted by a member of the contact tracing team.
  2. The contact tracer works with the individual to determine anyone in the Northwestern community who they have been in close contact with during the last two weeks.
  3. The contact tracer reaches out to the unit or department lead to identify other Northwestern community members who may be potential close contacts.
  4. The contact tracer reaches out to all identified Northwestern University close contacts. During this call, the contact tracer will likely cover a set of standard information, such as:
    • Confirmation of identity and demographics
    • A basic health screening for COVID symptoms or other COVID risk factors
    • How to arrange for a COVID-19 test, if one is recommended 
    • Required quarantine protocols and reporting documentation
    • Instructions for following-up with their personal medical provider (faculty or staff) or NUHS (students).
  5. Local public health entities will be informed of NU contact tracing efforts to facilitate management of cases, especially those involving individuals outside of the NU community.

Current guidance does not require quarantining secondary contacts (i.e. close contacts of close contacts), but those who are secondary contacts may elect to quarantine voluntarily and monitor for symptoms.

In the event someone has been identified as a close contact, is quarantining, and develops symptoms or becomes COVID positive, contract tracers will begin identifying close contacts of that individual.

What is a close contact?

A close contact is defined as being within less than 6 feet of a COVID-positive individual for 15 minutes or more. Examples of situations that might lead to a close contact:

  • Sharing an office space in close proximity;
  • Sitting together at a lab bench;
  • Eating or sleeping together in a dorm room;
  • Having an extended conversation at a party, while not wearing masks;
  • Physical contact, such as hugging or kissing;
  • Driving in a car together.


What is not a close contact?

Incidental contact with or exposure to someone who is COVID-positive is generally low risk and not deemed a close contact. Examples of scenarios that would likely not lead to being a close contact:

  • Passing in the hallway;
  • Working in the same building;
  • Having a short conversation, wearing masks, and more than 6 feet apart;
  • Being in a classroom together, if that classroom is applying good social distancing practices and everyone is wearing masks.