Penn State partners with Pennsylvania Department of Health for contact tracing

August 25, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — To support the health and well-being of the University community this fall, Penn State is implementing a contact tracing process in coordination with the Pennsylvania Department of Health as part of a layered tracing and testing approach for students and employees across all campuses.

The contact tracing plan, which was first shared during a town hall in July, is part of a comprehensive strategy that focuses on testing for both symptomatic and asymptomatic individuals, a daily symptom checker for students and employees, ongoing surveillance of data trends, and predictive modeling to inform the University’s return to campus and future steps. Penn State's full "COVID-19 'Back to State' Health and Safety Plan" is available online. 

“Contact tracing supports virus case detection and is designed to help prevent future outbreaks. By partnering with the Pennsylvania Department of Health and dramatically expanding our University operation, we are taking a unified approach that is consistent for all students, faculty and staff,” said Damon Sims, vice president for Student Affairs. “With existing processes and mechanisms in place, the University is equipped to act swiftly to identify and contact individuals, as well as directly provide guidance and support to students and employees across our campuses who are impacted.”

Students who test positive or are exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 should immediately contact University Health Services, their campus health center, or primary care provider. Students who test positive ​outside of a University testing process should also reach out to Contact Tracing and Student Support Services at 814-863-8800. Faculty and staff who test positive will need to report their positive status to their supervisor, contact Occupational Medicine, and self-isolate off campus.

University-wide model

The Penn State contact tracing program will scale-up existing contact tracing protocols and support services in place at the University. Tracing will be directed by the COVID-19 Operations Control Center (COCC) and operated centrally by the Office of Student Affairs, with support and representation from the Commonwealth Campuses.

The University and the Pennsylvania Department of Health will work in tandem to support state requirements for case investigation, which is the process of contacting those who test positive for COVID-19, or are presumed positive, and then reaching out to their close contacts. 

The Pennsylvania Department of Health will conduct a case investigation for all reported cases of COVID-19 as required. During the case investigation, individuals will be asked if they are affiliated with a school or university, and information will be reported to the University. By sharing information and using the same statewide software program for tracking cases, the University and state will easily be able to notify one another when students and employees test positive and/or are identified as close contacts.

Students and employees who are diagnosed with COVID-19 will be contacted by both the state health department and the University to identify their close contacts. A centralized team of staff, nurses and contact tracers at Penn State will oversee contact tracing for all students and employees who are identified as close contacts and will provide support and quarantine/isolation accommodations for students and guidance for employees. The state health department will reach out to close contacts who are not affiliated with Penn State.

Along with the Pennsylvania Department of Health, the University-wide model will rely on collaboration with various entities, including the local health departments in the communities where Penn State campuses are located, University Health Services, Occupational Medicine, campus nurses and health centers, and faculty and University leadership.

In addition to the central team, there will be a liaison at each campus location who will communicate with the contact tracing team and Student Support Services, who will help coordinate support resources and quarantine/isolation needs for impacted individuals at their campus.

“This is a community challenge and we each have a part in minimizing the spread of coronavirus in our communities,” Sims said. “Our partners across the University and the state will be vital in helping us address cases and presumed cases in a timely manner. It also will be critical for Penn State students and employees to participate fully and openly in the contact tracing process to support the health and well-being of our peers, colleagues and neighbors.”

Contact tracing and support process

To limit community spread and transmission, the University’s contact tracing process will focus on identifying, notifying and monitoring students and employees who came in close contact with a student or employee who has been diagnosed with COVID-19, or is presumed positive, while they were infectious.

When someone is identified as being positive for COVID-19, Penn State nursing staff will reach out to provide support and isolation guidance and to collect information about that person’s close contacts. Close contacts are defined as anyone who was within 6 feet of an infected person for at least 10 minutes starting from 48 hours before the person began feeling sick (or when they test positive, if asymptomatic) until the time the patient was isolated.

A Penn State contact tracer will then reach out to students and employees identified as close contacts to gain additional information and provide directions and health precautions. As part of the partnership with the Pennsylvania Department of Health, a contact tracer from the state also will reach out to Penn State students and employees who are diagnosed with COVID-19 to identify close contacts who are not affiliated with the University; the state will follow up with those close contacts.

To support the privacy of those involved in the contact tracing process, the identity of the student or employee who tested positive or is presumed positive will not be shared with close contacts without permission. The University will provide confidential notifications to their faculty, instructors or supervisors to enable accommodations and support. Instructors and supervisors will not share the identity of the individual with classmates or colleagues. Beyond these notifications, the University will only share information about an individual’s health status as needed and as appropriate if there is a concern for the safety of the campus community.

The following steps outline the contact tracing process and what students and employees can expect:

  • Step 1: Penn State will identify individuals who are diagnosed with COVID-19 or presumed positive.
  • Step 2: Nursing staff will initiate contact with positive or presumed positive students and employees.
  • Step 3: Contact tracers will communicate with employees and students identified as close contacts about quarantine expectations and support.
  • Step 4: Case managers will reach out daily, or on an as-needed basis, to students in isolation/quarantine to provide support and will notify faculty and instructors if a student is not permitted to attend class.


Students and employees who have tested positive for COVID-19 or are presumed positive must isolate for at least 10 days since symptom onset and must have an improvement in symptoms and be fever free for 24 hours without taking fever-reducing medication before returning to on-campus work or class. Once a student or employee tests positive or is presumed positive, the first step is isolation. Those in isolation should stay home, separate themselves from others in their household as much as possible, and monitor their health.

  • Employees: Faculty and staff should immediately leave work and isolate at home. Penn State Absence Management will answer questions and assist employees with additional needs.
  • Students: The contact tracing team will work with liaisons and University staff at the campuses on isolation needs for students. Students living on campus will isolate in space identified on their campus. Students living off campus will be accommodated with isolation space to the extent that the University is able if they are positive or presumed positive. Commuter students will be asked to isolate at home with support provided by the University. Penn State will work to accommodate students with extenuating circumstances.


Since COVID-19 symptoms typically develop between two to 14 days after exposure, students and employees who have been identified as a close contact during the University’s contact tracing process and/or believe they have come into contact with someone who has COVID-19 must quarantine for 14 days from their last contact with the individual, in accordance with the CDC guidelines. Individuals cannot test out of quarantine.

  • Employees: Faculty and staff should quarantine at home. Penn State Absence Management will answer questions and assist employees with additional needs.
  • Students: Students living on campus will quarantine in space identified on their campus. Case managers will evaluate quarantine needs for students living off campus, including for commuter students, as part of the contact tracing process, and Student Support Services will work with students who need to quarantine to develop a way to do so effectively.

Communication with faculty and instructors

To support the academic progress of students in isolation or quarantine, accommodations should be made for students in in-person classes. Students in remote courses should continue their coursework.

For students enrolled in in-person classes, their case managers will contact their faculty members and instructors to let them know the dates the student is not permitted to be in class, and the date they are cleared to return. Faculty and instructors also are encouraged to reach out to Contact Tracing and Student Support Services at 814-863-8800 if they have not received a notification but have heard that a student has been impacted by COVID-19.

Faculty and instructors will not be told specific medical information, unless the student gives permission, about why a student will not be in class or if a student is in isolation or quarantine. Faculty and instructors should not assume a student has COVID-19 or under any circumstance share the identity of the student with classmates. An email indicating the specified period of time a student can’t be in class does not equate to a positive COVID-19 case. If a student comes to class during the time frame indicated in the notification, instructors should ask them to leave and refer the student to the Office of Student Conduct.

During the time a student is not in class, faculty and instructors are encouraged to check in with the student and offer academic support, but should not ask about medical circumstances, isolation or quarantine. A variety of information and resources for instructors and students is available at and

For the latest updates and information on Penn State’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, including frequently asked questions and information specific for students, faculty and staff, visit

Contact tracing steps

These steps outline the University's contact tracing process and what students and employees can expect during the process. 

IMAGE: Penn State


Last Updated September 22, 2020