When the COVID-19 pandemic began to sweep the United States last year, some institutions had better plans and preparations in place than others. The University of North Florida (UNF), a smaller institution with an undergraduate enrollment of about 14,000, may have appeared at a disadvantage— UNF has no affiliated medical school and thus no CLIA-certified lab spaces. However, the most valuable asset in the University’s pandemic response turned out to be its people. Like other universities in their position, UNF moved to form a COVID-19 task force in the spring of 2020 to make key decisions about the future. The response program they created turned out to be incredibly successful, due largely to the staff, students, and community members who rose to the occasion. Bob Greenlaw and Dr. Doreen Perez, two key players in the task force, spoke with us about the community’s efforts to combine their talents and mount a united response to the pandemic at UNF.
Bob Greenlaw, the University’s emergency manager, was uniquely well-positioned to lead the COVID-19 task force. With more than 40 years of emergency management experience under his belt, it seemed as though Greenlaw had seen it all. “I was at the World Trade Center on 9/11, the Midwest flooding of the Mississippi River eight years ago, and one of the largest wildfires ever seen in Idaho,” he said. “This was just one more thing to handle.” He formed a team of 12 senior managers on the task force to expedite decision-making on the many issues at hand. Dr. Doreen Perez was among this group, emerging from her retirement to serve as the COVID-19 health care coordinator for UNF.
Dr. Perez, who had served as a Student Health Services director for 33 years, also brought unique skills to the position. “Like Bob, I’m retired Army, so we both had a lot of experience and training in teamwork,” she noted. “I was in the Nurse Corps, and we would set up combat support hospitals in the field, so this was a bit similar. We were setting up COVID testing and clinics “in the field.”
Even without an affiliated medical school, UNF had a group ready to serve “in the field”— student nurses. Students of the School of Nursing at UNF’s Brooks College of Health were facing their own dilemma in the pandemic. Hands-on clinical training is a key component of the program, but as local hospitals came under COVID-19 lockdowns, they were also closed to UNF nursing students seeking clinical training hours. However, the problem of constructing a COVID-19 response program presented a built-in solution for these students. “Our nursing students were able to partner with us to do testing, and later, vaccination clinics to get their clinical time in. It was a win-win for everyone,” noted Greenlaw.
UNF set up testing sites throughout its campus where staff and student nurses could administer tests in breezeways or drive-throughs to maximize ventilation, making everyone feel a bit safer.
In addition, the University was able to invest in equipment that not only made care more accessible but also gave student nurses valuable training in modern telehealth approaches.
“We were lucky enough to have an emergency student health fund of $500,000, so we never ran out of critical supplies like gloves and sanitizer,” Dr. Perez said. “We invested in equipment to expand telehealth as well— our stethoscopes had Bluetooth, so a provider could hear as well, and our otoscopes and ophthalmoscopes had large screens that could take pictures of the nose and throat. I felt it was important to make sure our assessments of these students could really engage the providers.” While their experience was far from normal, nursing students were able to complete their clinical training knowing they’d played a major role in getting their community through the pandemic.
Of course, skilled leadership and thoughtful policy could not succeed without student cooperation, and UNF’s students truly took ownership of the efforts to keep their campus safe. The task force integrated a feature into the University’s existing campus safety app, Safe Ospreys, where students were required to complete a daily self-screening for COVID-19 symptoms. While regular testing was not mandated, students were surprisingly effective at promoting a culture of responsibility on campus.
“Students were very cooperative. It was unusual to see one out of hundreds of people not wearing a mask,” remarked Greenlaw. “They manned tables outside, passing out masks to their peers and encouraging them to do their part to stay safe. And we’re going to do the same with a vaccination campaign, having students passing out buttons and t-shirts to students who have been vaccinated and encouraging others to do their part and keep us all safe.”
With this attitude on campus, UNF fared remarkably well for a community of 14,000— their highest week of positive COVID-19 tests had only 48 students and 15 staff members. Greenlaw and Dr. Perez agreed that open and honest communication formed a foundation for the success of the COVID-19 response program.
“We had town hall meetings where people could ask whatever questions they had to the task force. Nothing was off the table, and we really tried to give them straight and honest answers. And the fact that they were able to do that— can you imagine being able to ask your government representatives any questions you want answered?” said Greenlaw. This also provided a source of feedback used to guide the task force in making decisions that were tailored to the students and staff of UNF.
Importantly, the program also assuaged the fears of parents whose students were living on campus, as indicated by a story Dr. Perez shared. “With students’ parents, it’s pretty rare for them to take the time to give positive feedback, but I remember one mother’s phone call. She said, ‘You don’t know how I felt when my son called me and said he’d tested positive. He’s 800 miles away, I can’t touch him. I can only reach him on the phone. But when he told me that he had nurses checking on him every single day, all that stress fell away. I knew he had someone watching over him.’ To me, that sells the whole program.”
Although COVID-19 challenged schools such as UNF in ways that no one could have imagined, it also created a space where every member of the community had a role to play in fighting the pandemic. While few dedicated resources were in place at the start, staff and students of the
University quickly found themselves applying their own unique skills and passionate dedication to their efforts to stay safe.
“We’ve worked flawlessly together because COVID-19 threatened us all personally,” said Greenlaw. “No one on this planet wasn’t threatened by it.” This was a daunting reality, but Dr. Perez agreed that the readiness of the community to rise to the occasion helped UNF through the process. “Using what resources we had and pulling together the right people in the right place was extremely important. We weren’t afraid to jump in that deep water of the issue and then learn how to swim,” she said. With the cooperation of students and staff, it seems that UNF may have calmer waters ahead.
To learn more about UNF’s inspiring story, please see our Q&A with Bob Greenlaw and Dr. Doreen Perez. For more information on how Thermo Fisher Scientific can support your university testing needs, Get Connected or download our free Guide to Asymptomatic Population Testing.