MHA Alumna Keith Carnes Leads University’s COVID-19 Response

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Keith Carnes, MHA (‘07), PhD (‘16), is leading UNC Charlotte’s COVID-19 contact tracing activities. In this role, which supplanted his adjunct faculty service. He was challenged to launch the program within a matter of weeks, including recruiting and training 21 individuals, primarily UNC Charlotte students, as contact tracers or investigators, and designing protocols consistent with legal requirements and best practices and workflows that made efficient use of limited resources while being appropriate for the UNC Charlotte environment. In this role, Dr. Carnes is the university’s primary point of contact with Mecklenburg County Public Health (MCPH) and the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. He also coordinates with the leaders of the university’s other COVID-19 containment efforts such as Emergency Management, Housing and Residential Life, and Student Health Services.

By and large, the university has been successful in limiting the impact of COVID. Clusters (5 or more connected cases) have been few. Potential dorm outbreaks have been quickly investigated and contained. Few infections have been tied to classroom or laboratory exposures. Dr. Carnes noted with pride,

“I have been part of high-level meetings where decisions were made about which dorm to lock down for testing or whether to postpone a football game, etc. I see these decisions being made based on the best interest of the university community, usually at great cost and very significant inconvenience to various campus functions – all to protect the UNC Charlotte community’s health! Combining that values and evidence-based decision-making backed by solid resource investment in COVID containment through high volume testing, wastewater monitoring, and contract tracing is proof that UNC Charlotte has risen to the occasion.”

Dr. Carnes attributed the contact tracing program’s success to the highly talented and highly dedicated group of people hired to contact-trace and to the close working relationships with NC DHHS and MCPH. UNC Charlotte is the only university using the NC DHHS database for contact tracing, which has provided his team and the UNC Charlotte community with helpful information to stay safe.

Contract tracing starts with the daily Niner Health Check, students seeking tests at Student Health Services, wastewater surveillance of dorms, and reports of positive tests from other public health authorities. With the Niner Health Check, Faculty, staff, and students reporting possible symptoms are contacted for additional information and possibly referred for testing. Residents of dorms showing wastewater COVID-19 activity are asked to remain in place while they are screened for infection. Dr. Carnes assigns a case investigator to contact someone who tests positive, advise them of isolation requirements (which can include relocating a dorm resident to a designated isolation dorm), and collect a listing of close contacts from the past several days. This listing is then turned over to the contact tracer for further follow-up. The university defines close contacts as those individuals who have been less than six feet apart for longer than 15 minutes (cumulative within 24 hours). Close contacts are contacted and told to isolate themselves pending the outcome of the investigation. These operations run seven days a week.

Dr. Carnes noted that this experience will improve the way he teaches public health and healthcare leadership lessons. He shared that the lessons of COVID-19 management and leadership challenges such as discussing mask compliance and social distancing with wary individuals are applicable to other urgent efforts, but the shared experience of COVID-19 will make those lessons all the more apparent in the classroom.

Dr. Carnes urges everyone to continue (properly) wearing masks and maintaining the appropriate distance everywhere – in apartments, dorms, hallways, classrooms, laboratories, and outside spaces. For students returning home for the holidays, he encouraged self-isolation ahead of the trip and taking advantage of the free campus COVID testing offered before Thanksgiving. He also urges students to stay abreast of the university’s evolving spring return to campus COVID testing protocols.