Middle-of-the-night emails, weekend phone calls, extensive research, on-campus site services and operations, fact-checking and Zoom brainstorming are all just part of the job for a team of five University experts responsible for using science to guide and advise the efforts to protect the on-campus community during the pandemic.
Their behind-the-scenes work includes advising President Susan A. Cole on policies and protocols, overseeing student health care, directing an extensive program of testing and contact tracing, providing training and guidance, overseeing environmental safety, managing Hawk Check and compiling data and examining it to find ways to further enhance COVID-19 safety.
The team’s roster comprises Janice Smolowitz, dean of the School of Nursing; Lora Billings, dean of the College of Science and Mathematics; Patricia Ruiz, director of the University Health Center; Donna Sadlon, associate vice president of Enterprise Application Services; and Gena Coffey, assistant director of Environmental Health and Safety for University Facilities.
“This is a very fluid moving situation,” says Smolowitz, who with Billings co-chairs the Presidential Advisory Committee on COVID-19 Related Planning that was established by President Cole last May. “And as a team, we try to understand from each of our perspectives, what needs to be done.”
At the beginning of the rapidly exploding pandemic, the goal “was to figure out what was the latest and the greatest advice from the health-care professionals on how to keep everything and anything safe, whether it’s offices or classrooms,” says Billings, who describes her role on what has become known as the “COVID team,” as a combination utility player and workflow manager. “We just got to work.”
For Cole, the advice provided by this team of scientists, health professionals and data experts has helped her make important decisions about steering the campus safely and successfully through the pandemic.
“These five women are each experts in their fields, and together, they are brilliant,” Cole says. “I am very grateful for their tireless work, which comes on top of their already very demanding roles. They just keep focused on the task, with no fuss nor fanfare. They park their egos at the door and they work with respect for each other as a team.”
Team members represent a range of disciplines, from medicine and environmental health to data science and technology. “We try to understand from each of our perspectives what needs to be done. We try to listen to one another, work it through, think of what the context is, and reach out to other people who know more than we do and try to find the right answers for the University,” Smolowitz says.
Initially, the group was responsible for fact-finding, recommendations and messaging on hand washing, mask wearing, social distancing and other measures to mitigate spread of the disease.
The work quickly grew to include developing and implementing plans for testing and contact tracing, gathering and analyzing data, and assessing information coming from the New Jersey Department of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the World Health Organization. And now their work includes efforts to get the campus community vaccinated.
“It wasn’t until we actually started developing the restart plans and had specific guidance on what we needed to do that things became clearer,” says Sadlon.
Sadlon led development of a custom-built case management and contact-tracing application and supporting data analytics. “These are the pieces of technology that allow clinicians to quickly identify positive cases and efficiently complete contact tracing,” she says.
Additionally, her team developed the Hawk Check health screening tool, a quick online survey that asks users to answer questions about symptoms and risk factors. The survey is required every day – whether students, faculty and staff are on or away from campus – to make sure that the University has as much information as possible about the circumstances of the community, to allow the University’s health-care providers to intervene quickly if someone has COVID symptoms or may have been exposed to the virus, and to keep all University community members focused for a minute each day on the important things they need to be aware of to contribute to the safety of the University.
Hawk Check is among the safety measures that helped keep the prevalence of infection on campus low during the fall semester. This spring, protocols developed by the team will expand the testing program to cover more people and provide more frequent testing. With the addition of rapid tests, thousands more tests will be administered every week. In addition, the University is offering testing on campus for any student or employee who wants it.
“A lot of the protocols that we implemented right away at the University Health Center were based on information gathered from what our peers were doing, including immediately building our telehealth capacity. We were universally masked at the Center long before it was required,” says Ruiz.
Ruiz’s staff at the University Health Center traces every single known on-campus student case, with additional medical staff helping this spring with contact tracing, diagnosing of COVID-19 cases, and caring for those who test positive. Her team collaborates with the University’s Occupational Health Department, which tracks and traces every on-campus case involving an employee.
Team member Gena Coffey was able to bring her “hands-on” experience to the team, helping to shape training for students and employees, coordinating occupational health and safety matters, and serving as a trusted source of information for the University community, including taking hotline questions from employees in the early stages of the pandemic.
“People have questions, and they want information. The more information we can provide, the safer they will feel and the better they will be able protect themselves and others. Understanding what people need to know is the most important thing,” says Coffey. “We try to help people move from fear to strength.“
Coffey gives high marks to Facilities leadership and housekeeping staff for implementing many of the protocols developed by the team, including signage across campus, plexiglass in labs and classrooms, and cleaning and disinfecting that have all helped fight the spread of the coronavirus. Before the spring term, older hand dryers in restrooms were replaced with new models equipped with HEPA filters. Thermometer stations have also been installed in residence halls and in buildings throughout campus.
Meanwhile, the work continues. “We still meet weekly with the president to share our work, to brainstorm next steps, and to discuss the current cases. We literally go through each case one by one,” says Billings, “and we are always looking for what else we need to know or do to make things better.”
Although the team members no longer feel as though they are in the earlier “trial by fire” phase of the pandemic, the amount of work remains intense as the pandemic persists.
“It’s just different because initially we were planning for something about which there was limited certain information,” says Ruiz. “It’s like planning to go on a trip, but you don’t have a map or a guide book. Now we have had a great deal more experience, and every day we know more.”
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