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Contact Tracing

Contact tracing involves identifying people who have come into close contact (less than 6 feet for more than 15 minutes) with someone diagnosed with COVID-19.

Unvaccinated individuals identified via contract tracing are required to quarantine. If the exposed individual is an unvaccinated undergraduate student living in a Northwestern residence hall, the student is moved to on-campus quarantine housing for the period of quarantine. Unvaccinated individuals identified via contract tracing who do not live in undergraduate campus housing are required to quarantine in their off-campus housing or another approved location.

Fully vaccinated individuals identified via contract tracing are not required to quarantine. However, they need obtain a COVID-19 PCR test 3-5 days after their initial exposure. Additionally, they need to mask indoors for 14 days after their initial exposure.

All undergraduate students who are either isolating due to testing positive for COVID-19 or unvaccinated and quarantining due to exposure to COVID-19 have access to telehealth support via the Northwestern Case Management Team and Northwestern Health Service.

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 with whom they have been in close contact.
  3. 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).
  4. 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). Individuals who are identified as a secondary contact who elect to quarantine should work with their individual school, unit or department based on individual circumstances and job responsibilities.

What is a close contact?

A close contact is defined as being within 6 feet of a COVID-positive individual for 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period. Examples of situations that might lead to a close contact include, but are not limited to:

  • Sharing an office space in close proximity;
  • Sitting together at a lab bench;
  • Sitting next to each other in class wearing masks;
  • 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 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 include:

  • Passing in the hallway;
  • Working in the same building but not within 6 feet;
  • Having a short conversation, wearing masks, and being more than 6 feet apart;
  • Secondary contacts, i.e., close contacts of close contacts