Columbia Contact Tracing Program

Updated: September 17, 2020

For questions regarding COVID-19-related incidents, please contact the Columbia University COVID-19 hotline at 212-854-9355 (Monday–Friday, 9am–5pm) or via e-mail at covidtesttrace@columbia.edu. Depending on the incident, the Contact Tracing Team will conduct an assessment to determine the appropriate response. 

Fact Sheets (PDFs)

FAQs Regarding Contact Tracing

Contact tracing is an important strategy to prevent spread of COVID-19. Individuals who are diagnosed with COVID-19 are asked to self-isolate and to share names of individuals with whom they have had close contact while they may have been infectious based on CDC definition of close contacts. These contacts are then notified about their potential exposure without revealing the identity of the person diagnosed with COVID-19, and they are asked to self-quarantine for 14 days and are given guidance on how to take care of themselves and prevent transmission to other people. Contacts are also provided with resource navigation services, if needed, to support them during the duration of their quarantine.

While primary contact tracing responsibilities and procedures for identified cases of COVID-19 are the responsibility of New York State and New York City, Columbia University has established a comprehensive Contact Tracing Program consistent with the New York State guidelines to trace the contacts of an individual testing positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Guided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local public health agencies, the contact tracing program uses protocols and best practices for contact investigation and notification. The Columbia Contact Tracing Program’s goal is to assist in conducting contact tracing for all COVID-19 cases identified among Columbia affiliates through the Columbia testing program, or as reported to the University through the symptom attestation process. Persons who have not been notified by the local health authority or the Columbia University Test and Trace Program are not considered to have increased risk based on exposure to individuals diagnosed with COVID-19. The Columbia contact tracing program has partnered with the New York City Test and Trace Program to ensure coordination of contact tracing efforts and connection to available city resources.

If you have a positive test through Columbia’s Testing Program, you will first be notified of the test result by a Columbia clinician, and given appropriate guidance on need for self-isolation and clinical care. You will also be informed that the Columbia Contact Tracing Team will call you for a contact tracing interview. If you are tested outside of Columbia and inform your school, department, or campus health service, your supervisor should call Columbia’s COVID Help Line (212-854-9355) to notify them of your positive test result. You may also call the Help Line for guidance. The Columbia Tracing Team will be notified, and a member of the team will call you for a contact tracing interview. Our goal is to call you within 24 hours of your positive test result.

As you have been diagnosed with COVID-19, you will be asked about your close contacts during the time you were infectious (2 days prior to symptom onset or 2 days prior to testing if you have no symptoms). Per New York City Department of Health, a close contact is defined as someone who has been within 6 feet of you for 10 minutes for more. We will ask about members of the Columbia community who meet this definition, as well as your household contacts (if you live with other Columbia affiliates). We will also provide information about additional resources you may need, and answer your questions. We will also let you know that you will hear from a New York City or New York State contact tracer to assess your contacts outside of Columbia. You will be assured that your name or other identifying characteristics will not be shared without your consent with any contacts. The Columbia Contact Tracing Team is only responsible for Columbia campus-related contacts. Non-campus household and other non-campus contacts will be elicited and contacted by the New York City Test and Trace Team.

Respecting your privacy and confidentiality is paramount. Your identity will not be revealed to any contacts, unless you agree to such disclosure, or disclosing the information is absolutely necessary to protect the health and safety of others. Your school or department will be notified that there is a case of COVID-19, so they can manage the appropriate facilities cleaning and broader school or departmental notification, but your name and other identifying information will not be shared. Any broad notification will only state that “a case of COVID-19 has been identified,” and your identity will remain private.

Please refer to our isolation guidance.

Close contacts are defined as someone who has been within 6 feet of an individual with COVID-19 for 10 minutes or more during the time that individual was infectious (2 days prior to symptom onset or 2 days prior to testing if they have no symptoms). These contacts are identified by interviewing the person who tested positive. The Contact Tracing Team notifies these contacts that they have been in close contact with a person with COVID-19 (without revealing the identify of that individual) and provides them with guidance on quarantine and testing.

You will be notified of your exposure (but will not be told who you were exposed to, in order to protect their privacy). You will be encouraged to quarantine for 14 days after your last exposure as indicated by the case. You can get tested on day 8 of your quarantine, though you will have to compete the 14-day quarantine, even if you test negative. You should monitor your symptoms daily during this 14-day period, including checking your temperature twice daily and watching for other COVID-19 symptoms such as cough or shortness of breath. If you develop symptoms, you should promptly isolate and call your primary care provider or your campus health service.

Please refer our quarantine guidance.

Incidental exposure such as walking by someone in the hallway, using the same equipment or being in the same area or room is not close contact, so in these situations, you will not be contacted by a tracer and it is not recommended that you quarantine. However, if you have questions about exposure or COVID-19 you can call Columbia’s COVID Help Line (212-854-9355, M-F, 9am – 5pm).

The University will NOT release the identity of individuals who are diagnosed with COVID-19 infection, as per confidentiality requirements. However, if a case is identified, the appropriate department/unit/school/lab will be notified that an individual in their area has tested positive. This will allow:

  • A community notification that someone has tested positive, with information that those who were deemed as close contacts will be contacted by the Columbia Contact Tracing Program with appropriate guidance.
  • Appropriate facilities cleaning to occur.

The Columbia University Contract Tracing Team will interview the individual with COVID-19 and solicit from them who they have had recent contact with. If you are determined to be a potential close contact of this individual, you will be contacted by the team who will interview you to confirm whether you fulfill the definition of being a close contact and would require to be quarantined.

Please note: In most classroom/ lab settings in which social distancing is maintained, it is unlikely individuals will fulfill the close contact definition. Therefore, if you have NOT been identified as a potential contact, you should continue with your activities as usual. It is important to always adhere to the recommended protective behaviors, e.g. wearing face covering, physical distancing, etc. 

For guidance on use of affected areas for staff and students, please contact the COVID-19 hotline at 212-854-9355 (M-F, 9am – 5pm) or covidtesttrace@columbia.edu.

For cleaning and disinfection of the affected areas, you can submit a work order with Columbia University Facilities for the Morningside/ Manhattanville or CUIMC campus. Alternatively, you can reach Facilities by phone at:

Morningside Campus/ Manhattanville: (212) 854-2222

Medical Center (CUIMC): (212) 305-4357 (option 3)

If the individual was tested at a University or NYP-affiliated testing site, the Columbia University Contact Tracing team would have been made aware of the positive result. The team will mobilize to interview the person who tested positive and to also interview potential contacts. If the individual was tested at other test sites, the result would have been transmitted to New York City Department of Health and to the City’s Contact Tracing Team, who will also interview the case and potential contacts. The University Contact Tracing program is working collaboratively with the City’s team. If further action is needed, you will be notified by University personnel.

In this situation, you are a second-degree contact meaning you may have interacted with someone identified as a close contact. Other than the recommended protective behaviors (e.g., wearing face covering, physical distancing, etc.), no action is needed and you should continue with your activities as usual. Please see our guidance on whether to isolate or quarantine to determine your risk.

Columbia University Human Resources (HR) maintains record of the vendors and visitors to campus. Please notify Human Resources if you believe University personnel have not been made aware. Human Resources will activate the Columbia University Contact Tracing Team who will conduct a proper assessment of the incident, including contact tracing.

As potential close contacts, the students should immediately self-quarantine while awaiting further assessment by the Columbia University Contact Tracing Team. Please notify the University Contact Tracing Team (212-854-9355 or covidtesttrace@columbia.edu) as soon as possible.  Upon being notified, the team will conduct the necessary contact tracing and provide guidance to the affected individuals. This may involve continued quarantine, symptom monitoring, or getting tested. If quarantine is advised, please refer to Columbia University’s quarantine guidance for students, found here.

For information, please reference the CDC’s Public Health Guidance for Community-Related Exposure.

Please be aware that most interactions in public spaces, such as restrooms and elevators, do not meet the criteria of a COVID-19 close contact. However, given the potential role of fomite transmission (i.e. from surfaces), the practicing of protective behaviors (e.g., good hand hygiene, wearing of face covering, etc.) is of the utmost importance in these situations. Additionally, as a precaution, the affected areas will be closed for 24 hours and cleaned/ disinfected to ensure safe use of the space.

In situations where a case is unable to recall close contacts or has unknown contacts in a communal area during the time they are infectious, Columbia University will use WiFI technology to help determine where affiliates are situated when on campus to assist in the Contact Tracing efforts. Use of the Columbia wireless network could help the Contact Tracing Team to more quickly identify the persons that may have been in contact with an individual who tests positive for COVID-19 in limited circumstance. The WiFi technology would only be deployed if a person tests positive for COVID-19, and was in a location on campus while infectious where they had prolonged close contact (within 6 feet for more than 10 minutes) with an individual or individuals whom they do not know and cannot identify through recall. It would NOT be deployed if the individual recalls their close contacts, such as in the classroom, office, and residential settings. Examples of scenarios where this may be used include dining halls, lounges, and communal outdoor areas.

To facilitate this, we request that all staff, faculty and students use the CU Secure wireless network, as has been recommended, for all of your devices (follow instructions for Secure Wireless). Using this wireless network has the additional benefit of encrypting all of your wireless traffic to the connected access point, which improves your personal security. Data from the wireless network are retained for 30 days before deletion, and will only be reviewed if there is a positive case identified as described above and solely for the purpose of contact tracing.