Mechanical Engineering Department Students Concerned about Potential COVID-19 Exposure in Labs


Jack Gambassi

The A. Ray Olpin Student Union building’s Ballroom in Salt Lake City. Taken on September 21st (Photo by Jack Gambassi | The Daily Utah Chronicle)

By Porshai Nielsen, Investigative Editor



During the week of Sept. 21, 2020, over 100 students may have been exposed to COVID-19 after the Mechanical Engineering Department at the University of Utah failed to notify teacher assistants of their potential exposure, according to a source who wanted to remain anonymous. 

The anonymous source reported there was a teacher’s assistant staff meeting held on Sept. 18, where everyone wore masks, but social distancing was not feasible.

The next day, a teacher’s assistant began feeling flu-like symptoms and from the source’s understanding, reported it to the department for the purpose of exposure tracking. The symptomatic TA potentially exposed the other TAs, who went on to teach their labs on schedule, which included contact with many students in the mechanical engineering program.

It wasn’t until after their sessions were finished that they learned a TA was in quarantine, and the information was not given by the department but through talking to one another. 

Overall it is frustrating to me that the department would allow me to teach my sections knowing I had direct exposure to COVID,” said the source who teaches four labs a week. 

There are five mechanical engineering TAs who teach a few labs a week, which means there is potential for over 120 students to be infected with COVID-19. During the labs, students are required to wear masks, sometimes goggles and remain 6 feet apart. Most mechanical engineering labs have been limited to five to six students. 

“I would be pretty upset to learn that I had been potentially exposed to coronavirus. I am not currently in any labs in which I could have been exposed, but I am still upset for my fellow students. So many of us have families and cannot afford to contract it,” said Alex Nickisch, a fourth-year mechanical engineering student. 

Since the initial complaint made by the anonymous TA, the department has released information to their TAs regarding training for staff and TAs on how to properly report a positive test or exposure. According to the appointed chair of the mechanical engineering department, Bruce Gale, the situation has been addressed and handled.

“The professor responsible for the class contacted the university COVID helpline and followed the instructions. They were told because social distancing and mask-wearing was maintained at all times, the risk was minimal,” Gale said.

In the future, the policy that should be followed says that the supervisor/faculty advisor should “isolate the potentially impacted areas until positive confirmation of the diagnosis” and “contact individuals within the potentially impacted area and inform them of the concern.”

The COVID-19 self-reporting form provided by the U allows students and faculty to report potential exposure and positive results, either about yourself or other people. Once there is a confirmed COVID-19 case determined by positive test results, the U or the Salt Lake County Health Department will go about contact tracing and notifying those potentially exposed, and on-campus students who test positive are required to quarantine through university instructions and resources.

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