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Credit: Isabel Liang

Penn's Campus Health team created an automated text-based program to better support students who test positive, have symptoms, or have come into contact with COVID-19.

COVID Navigator launched in mid-February as a part of the Penn Cares COVID-19 response program. Students with a red PennOpen Pass are automatically enrolled in the program and receive daily text messages checking in on their well-being. Depending on a student's responses and specific concerns, they are directed to a personalized list of resources, including Counseling and Psychological Services, Student Health Service, and Campus Health.  

Students who are exposed to COVID-19, test positive, or experience symptoms will receive a daily text from COVID Navigator asking, “How are you doing during your isolation/quarantine period compared to 24 hours ago?” If a student indicates that they are feeling worse than the previous day, the program will follow up with a text prompting them to choose from a list of issues they may be experiencing, including physical or mental health concerns, confusion surrounding quarantine or isolation dates, food access, safety concerns, and academic support. 

Based on the student's response, COVID Navigator will connect the student with the appropriate resources, including medical care through Student Health Service, mental health services through CAPS, quarantine and isolation guidance and support through Campus Health, and other resources through the Social Needs Response Team, a group dedicated to assisting individuals referred via hotlines or electronic medical records with safety or social concerns.

All students with a red Pass issued for any reason — aside from noncompliance with twice-a-week COVID-19 testing — are automatically enrolled in the COVID Navigator program after speaking with a representative from SHS or Campus Health about their individual situation first. Students may opt out of the program at any point, but if they do not respond to the daily text while enrolled, the system will follow up multiple times a day to ensure the student's well-being, SHS Medical Director Vanessa Stoloff said. 

COVID Navigator was created in response to a rising number of cases on campus, as SHS could no longer reach out to students with a red Pass as regularly, Stoloff said.

“[Calling all students with a red Pass] is a lot of outreach, and oftentimes people were not picking up the phone, or ignoring the messages, because really, they didn’t want that outreach. They didn’t want to be bothered," Stoloff said. "It was very difficult to pick out who actually needed our help, and who didn’t."

Stoloff said the COVID Navigator system was inspired by COVID Watch, a similar text-based outreach program created by Penn Medicine to monitor patients at high risk for health complications due to COVID-19 while they isolated at home. The program, which launched in late March 2020, is staffed by registered nurses 24 hours a day who reach out to patients if they receive a concerning response.

"I remember thinking, 'What a great system — where someone can access the care they need specifically, and reach the people they need to more readily,'" Stoloff said.

Some students in both isolation and quarantine, however, said they did not feel COVID Navigator was always enough support.

“I’m just surprised that they don’t have more communication. I guess they’re really overwhelmed right now, so they’re just using the texting system instead,” a first-year student currently isolating in Sansom Place West, who wished to remain anonymous in fear of peer judgement, said.

Another first-year student quarantining in their dorm — who also wished to remain anonymous in fear of peer judgment — agreed, noting that having a specific SHS contact to turn to would have been more reassuring than having to text through the menu of options.

“To be honest, I wasn’t even sure if it was asking how I was doing being in isolation, or physically and health-wise," the student said. "They could be more clear in the text system about whether they’re talking about physical symptoms or your mental state.” 

Both students, however, said they felt reassured when they received COVID Navigator messages and appreciated having some form of constant outreach from SHS.

“[COVID Navigator] is a different kind of outreach. It’s a little less 'hand-holding,' and it sort of puts the ball in the student’s court in terms of how they can identify, but it’s an outreach nonetheless,” Stoloff said.

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