Occupational Health Program aims to keep staff safe, slow spread of COVID-19

The Occupational Health Program (OHP) is one of three programs under the Human Resources HealthPoint umbrella with a small team known for its health risk assessments, screenings and vaccinations, treatment and management of work-related injuries and illnesses, and fitness for duty consultations. In recent months, however, OHP’s focus has shifted to addressing the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic.  

OHP Senior Occupational Health Nurse Kimberly Craig explained that the unit does not perform COVID-19 testing, but they have other critical roles, and partners, in helping prevent the spread of the disease.

“We rely on faculty and staff to self-report to us if they have symptoms consistent with COVID-19, if they have been tested for it, or both,” Craig said. “In addition, UT Health–Austin (UTHA) has a partnership with OHP, so they notify us when they perform COVID-19 testing on our UT Austin employees.”

Employees who have symptoms without being tested and those who tested negative for COVID-19 but have symptoms should report that they were tested to OHP, which will make daily contact with them while the employee is practicing self-isolation or self-quarantine.

When the OHP team receives notice that an employee has tested positive for COVID-19, OHP immediately reaches out to identify any close contacts they may have in the UT community, a process referred to as contact tracing. A close contact is someone who has been within six feet of a person who has tested positive for COVID-19 for 15 minutes or more.   

“Once we obtain the list of close contacts, OHP will reach out to each individual on the list to give them guidance on how to self-quarantine,” Craig said. 

She explained that self-quarantine is a designated period of time (14 days) to determine whether someone who was exposed to a person who has tested positive for COVID-19 is going to develop symptoms. During self-quarantine, the employee stays home and limits interactions with others and self-monitors, including checking for fever or respiratory symptoms.

According to Craig, only those employees who meet the criteria for close contact need to be removed from the work area and placed on self-quarantine. There are leave options and work policies in place to help support these employees. Providing that guidance in coordination with local HR representatives is another part of what OHP does.

“All others who may have been nearby but don’t meet the criteria for close contact are considered ‘casual contacts.’ They only need to self-monitor, which everyone should be doing at this time.” 

Once positive cases and close contacts have been identified, OHP provides guidance for the employee to log in to a Symptom Tracker daily to report COVID-19 symptoms.  They will do this for each day of their quarantine or isolation period. If an individual isn’t using the Tracker, OHP follows up with them. This can be especially important if someone has become too ill to use the Tracker and may need medical assistance.

When the individual completes the designated quarantine or isolation period, the Symptom Tracker allows OHP to formally release them to return to work. Craig noted that the Symptom Tracker was created by another FAS unit, eBITS, and it has been an excellent tool for OHP.

Contact tracing for preventing the spread of COVID-19 is proving to be so valuable that the effort is soon to expand, according to Craig. Plans are underway for contact tracing teams to be in action 7 days a week, 12 hours a day. Dell Medical will oversee the effort, University Health Services will be in charge of student outreach, and OHP will continue its work with faculty and staff, but with additional support.

“It’s going to give us lots more coverage,” Craig said.

With more coverage will come even more data from individuals who test positive for COVID-19. Craig explained that this helps Environmental Health and Safety (EHS) make decisions about building closures, cleanings and disinfection of potentially contaminated areas. In turn, EHS is able to help make the campus a safer place.

Craig strongly believes not only in the value of contact tracing, but also in the important role of personal responsibility for reducing the spread of the disease.
“In theory, when OHP does contact tracing, we should have zero close contacts!” she said. “If faculty, staff and students follow university guidance to Protect Texas Together, which is maintain social distancing and hand hygiene, wear facial protection and screen daily for symptoms, we can keep the campus community safe, together.”

In order to slow the spread of COVID-19 and help keep the campus community safe, employees and managers should contact OHP at (512) 471-4647 or healthpoint.ohp@austin.utexas.edu to report COVID-19 symptoms or COVID-19 tests regardless of test results.