By Mary Kate McGrath - March 30, 2020
In early March, colleges and universities in the United States canceled in-person classes and sent students home in response to the coronavirus outbreak. The University of Washington shifted entirely to an online learning for its 50,000 students, while Stanford University also canceled all on-campus activities, barred in-person classes, urged students to go home, and shuttered most facilities. Infectious disease specialists note that dormitories, with communal bathrooms and common spaces, as well as dining halls with open buffets, are like cruise ships, with students living in close quarters at increased risk of infection, as per the New York Times.
Yet, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to unfold, many regions and cities are experiencing a shortage of housing and healthcare resources. Empty college and university campus facilities might be available to create the critical healthcare infrastructure, including quarantine facilities, during this time of need.
Facilities on college or university campuses can be easily converted into public health institutions, especially now that students have departed campuses and faculty are working remotely. Reimbursements will need to be paid, regulations waived, and responsibilities for facility managers or campus officials reassigned, according to Forbes, but with these accommodations, higher education institutions can serve this urgent function to better serve public health. In fact, several major institutions have already begun to convert into quarantine facilities. Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, and Stony Brook University, in Stony Brook, New York, are already preparing to serve as overflow hospitals for surrounding communities.
Stony Brook University is set to serve as the county COVID-19 testing site, as well as a quarantine facility for recovering patients who do not require immediate medical care. The hospital is doing triage in a parking lot, quarantine sites are being built out on campus, and the campus is preparing to serve as an essential army field hospital.
Emergency communications will be bolstered by an SMS Opt-In function of mass notification. Medical workers and patients will be able to opt-in to critical alerts and updates by texting a keyword to a preset number. Two sets of keywords will be set: 1. Keywords for critical staff like healthcare and volunteer workers and 2. Patients being quarantined on campus, and their families, who can opt-in for alerts even while off-site.
Healthcare facilities are overburdened by the rapid spread of COVID-19, and “alternative care facilities” are popping up across the country with states converting ice-hockey rinks, hotels, naval ships, and college campus facilities, according to ABC News. Leaders in higher education can collaborate with local communities and medical providers to offer the school’s emptied out-facilities as surplus resources. In Massachusetts, Tufts University is offering up all of the campus resources possible; large unused spaces, which can be used as extra testing sites, WiFi and IT networks, and food preparation facilities or staff, as per ABC.
Tufts president Anthony Monaco said that the institution had a “civic duty” to contribute to COVID-19 response, as per a statement issued to ABC. “We and other institutions of higher education must step up and prepare to help relieve the pressures on our healthcare system as this virus continues to spread,” Monaco said. For other college or university leaders looking to contribute, there are several key steps institutions can take to begin to convert facilities into emergency infrastructure.
Prioritize the health of students still on campus. If a college or university sent on-campus students home, there’s a chance that international students, or those from exceptional living situations, were not able to leave dormitories. Before converting any facility on campus into a quarantine facility, testing site, or overflow hospital, make sure that any students still living on-campus are not in danger, living and eating in an area separate from sick individuals. Offering an additional option to house students off-campus, or to arrange alternative plans, would be more ideal. Either way, communication with these individuals will be critical for their health.
Many colleges or universities have built arenas, student recreation centers, and other large facilities with the help of grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), according to Forbes. Campus leaders can activate FEMA facilities on campus, just as they would during a major storm or another natural disaster, allowing these buildings to be used for food, medicine, or medical equipment storage, medical triage centers, communication or command centers. Large arenas or other major facilities allow for adequate social distancing and can better protect medical workers. But FEMA facilities aren’t the only campus buildings with potential to help overburdened hospitals - empty dormitories can serve as quarantine facilities, surge hospitals, or recovery clinics.
Campus leaders can also leverage an existing college or university workforce to bolster coronavirus response. Dining facilities can be used to prepare meals either for young children in the community who rely on free or reduced lunch for meals, and food for quarantined patients can also be prepared on-site for transport. It’s important that workers are paid fairly for high-risk work, are given paid sick-leave to ensure nobody unhealthy feels obligated to work, are given adequate supplies to safeguard against germs such as masks and gloves, and are kept separate from people who are ill.
Campus counseling services for community-health purposes continue to be taken advantage of as days or weeks of isolation begin to take a toll on people’s mental health. Higher education counseling centers can use telehealth platforms and can provide mental healthcare as rates of anxiety and depression in communities rise, as per Forbes. Medical supplies from closed campus health-clinics, especially personal protective equipment, should be donated to hospitals or healthcare workers. In many places, nurses are facing coronavirus without enough protective gear, forced to reuse masks or improvise other protective measures, according to NPR.
If your higher education institution does become a quarantine facility amidst the coronavirus outbreak, school leaders should consider mass notification solutions with SMS opt-in functionality. This technology is a critical component of a quarantine facility communication plan.
Leveraging this system can prevent confusion among patients or health care workers, allowing all to follow best public health protocol and minimize the potential for infections. A text to opt-in feature, which integrates with a mass notification solution allows healthcare workers and patients located on campus to opt-in for alerts as local outbreaks develops.
Administrators can set a keyword for each group - meaning that healthcare workers can opt-in for relevant alerts amid treating patients, while patients and their families can receive updates to better understand testing or quarantine facility protocol.
Increasing communication capability can minimize confusion or chaos, allowing healthcare workers to follow best procedures to protect themselves or others from the coronavirus.
Mary Kate is a content specialist and social media manager for the Rave Mobile Safety team. She writes about public safety for the state & local and education spheres.
Readers with longer memories may recall that the severe weather hurricane season didn't always start on June 1st and...