Most universities didn’t have the plans in place to handle the COVID-19 pandemic at its start and were left to cobble together their responses with varying degrees of success. At the University of North Florida (UNF), Bob Greenlaw and Dr. Doreen Perez were part of a twelve-member task force that handled the University’s response. Bob Greenlaw, an experienced emergency manager, and Dr. Doreen Perez, a Doctor of Nursing with a focus in infectious diseases, were perfectly suited to meet this challenge. They leveraged the University’s funds, facilities, and resources (including students from the School of Nursing) to put together an impressive testing and contract tracing program. This program generated a huge amount of enthusiasm and cooperation from students, which ultimately paid off. With an undergraduate enrollment of about 14,000 students, their highest week of positive COVID-19 cases was only 48 students and 15 employees. We spoke with Dr. Doreen Perez and Bob Greenlaw about the task force’s work in constructing a COVID-19 response plan and what they learned from the experience.
Q: How did you both come to UNF’s COVID-19 task force, and what were your respective roles there?
Bob Greenlaw (BG): I’m the emergency manager at the University, and I was asked by the president to form and lead a COVID-19 task force. I’ve been in emergency management for over 40 years; 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. This was just one more thing to handle. We have a team of about 12 senior managers on that task force who can make decisions and get through issues quickly, including some on the medical side, like Doreen.
Dr. Doreen Perez (DP): I was actually a retired director of Student Health Services; I’d been there for 33 years. And it just so happened that we were in between directors at the time, so I was happy to come out of retirement and pitch in wherever I could. Under Bob’s direction, I became the COVID-19 health care coordinator. I also want to add that we’re both retired Army, so we had a lot of experience and training in teamwork. 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-19 testing and clinics “in the field.”
Q: In what ways was UNF well-equipped to handle this challenge, and what were some limitations the University faced?
BG: Being a smaller university, we were limited by the size of our buildings when trying to social distance. When students are six feet apart you have about one-third of your typical capacity, which really limited our class sizes. At first, we shut down in-person learning entirely and then moved to hybrid and rotating classrooms when we could. In terms of advantages, we have a School of Nursing at UNF, and our student nurses were not able to do their clinical hours at hospitals due to lockdowns. But they 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.
DP: Our student nurses were definitely a huge help. We were also lucky enough to have an emergency student health fund of $500,000, so we never ran out of critical supplies like gloves and sanitizer. 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. As for our facilities, we were able to administer COVID-19 tests in breezeways rather than having to gather in rooms, which made students feel more comfortable. We were a little limited by the fact that we don’t have a modern CLIA lab on our campus, so we had to outsource our test processing to an outside lab.
Q: Tell us about the main components of your COVID-19 response.
DP: We managed contract tracing through a free app, “Safe Ospreys.” Everyone was expected to complete a self-assessment on the app every day and if it seemed like they might have symptoms or were exposed, a nurse would call them. Then, when they got tested, we’d collect all the information. Who do you live with? Where do you work? What parties have you attended? And with that, we can contact anyone who may have been exposed and ask them to quarantine for ten days. As far as testing, we did have to outsource to an external lab group, Gravity, which we appreciated for their quick turnaround time. We worked with housing to have students in each of our twelve residential buildings arrive one week at a time and highly recommended they get tested. We did the same with students living off campus as well. All our athletes and athletic staff did have to be tested too, and we tested all faculty and staff.
BG: We also worked to make it easy to get tested. We had drive-through and walk-in testing with no appointments needed, which made it really appealing to students. It was all free as well, and very efficient and accessible. I don’t think we ever had a wait of more than ten minutes to get tested.
Q: What was the community’s response to the task force and its plans?
BG: Students were very cooperative. It was unusual to see one out of hundreds of people not wearing a mask. Students manned tables outside, passing out masks to their peers and encouraging them to do their part to stay safe. In general, communication was key. 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?
DP: We had generally positive responses to our plans. The public health department was really impressed with our whole blueprint for mitigating the virus. And then 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.
Q: What would you say is the lasting lesson or takeaway from how your team managed the pandemic?
BG: When we started, we had a huge task force, and I trimmed it down to twelve decision makers. If you have to make a quick decision, you can’t go round and round— these were not issues we could sit and fiddle around with for a long time. So, we learned to form a team and work together to cut through all that red tape and be efficient. A big key was that the president put so much of this in our hands, letting us make decisions and then implement them quickly. We were empowered to do it.
DP: Having a disaster or emergency plan for issues like this is also vital. In this case, we couldn’t get out in front of it; it was barely on the radar in January and then students were sent home by March. But 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.