As JMU students walk into the Health Center, they receive a medical mask handed to them by a similarly masked employee. Walking further into the reception room, they’re stopped six feet from the check-in desk by line dividers placed across the room to prevent them from moving any closer.
It’s an experience that makes one thing abundantly clear: COVID-19 hasn’t forgotten about the JMU community.
As the coronavirus has spread both nationally and globally, JMU’s community is just one of many that have been intimately affected, with at least one case in the student body confirmed in a JMU News article. In the wake of the pandemic, Andrew Guertler, medical director of the JMU Health Center, said the Center is taking unprecedented measures to respond to COVID-19.
“We are making adjustments as we figure out which services we need to provide, which services we can hold off on providing right now until all of this, kind of, settles down,” Guertler said.
While coronavirus cases in the U.S. have skyrocketed over the last week, the Health Center has been preparing for a pandemic since early January, Guertler said. Additionally, the Infectious Disease Response Team — a group of 70 individuals across all departments of the university designed to coordinate response efforts — convened in late January. At the same time, Guertler said, the Health Center began preparing and “looking at our supplies of personal protective equipment, hand sanitizer, those types of things, and started buying some extras to be prepared.”
Caitlyn Read, interim spokeswoman for JMU and a member of the Infectious Disease Response Team, said preparations began with efforts to plan for both the knowns and the unknowns of the situation.
She said the process was guided by direction from both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Virginia Department of Health, along with JMU’s own emergency operations plans, which aren’t publicly available and are listed as a Freedom of Information Act exemption because “they do speak to security.”
“Our first task was to make sure that we were in adherence to the guidance that had been issued, and then to survey all of our existing emergency operations plans,” Read said. “So, auditing those plans, making sure that they are up to date, current, that they’re in adherence to the guidance that is, you know, coming out every single day, and then, obviously, planning for next steps.”
Now, with the upshot in Virginia cases and Gov. Northam’s (D) subsequent Stay-at-Home order, “next steps” have begun, and the Health Center has made changes to how it operates to protect both patients and staff. Notably, online appointment-booking has been shut down, and anyone looking to be seen at the Health Center must call. From there, a nurse or medical provider will attempt to diagnose the patient over the phone before assigning an appointment time.
“When you have this kind of disease outbreak, you’ve got to have control over who’s coming in, not only for the safety of the staff, but for the safety of the patients that are coming in as well,” Guertler said.
Cutting down on foot traffic also includes a cut back on “non-essential” operations, Guertler said. While the Health Center will see people if they “need to be seen,” if something can be postponed, it most likely will.
“You know, if somebody wanted a TB test, or somebody wanted to update their Tetanus immunization, things like that can wait,” Guertler said. “When we can identify things that can wait, we’re having people wait.”
Some student resources, however, have been kept available during the operational shift. Jackie Hieber, assistant director for sexual violence prevention and survivor advocacy, said that while some changes have been enacted, advocates in Survivor Advocacy services — a department within JMU’s The Well — are still able to accompany students who may need medical care following an instance of sexual misconduct to the Health Center to receive medical attention.
While advocates are usually able to go with students to both the Health Center and the Sentara RMH Medical Center, the latter’s current visitor restrictions prevent advocates from accompanying students to the hospital. But, the service is still available at the Health Center.
“Luckily, most of our students are typically seeking services in our Health Center … and we can still do accompaniment there,” Hieber said. “I’m glad that that resource is still there.”
In step with the discontinuation or reconfiguration of several programs and services during the re-allocation of resources, the Health Center has also implemented several new measures in response to the coronavirus’ spread.
Guertler said the coronavirus’ classification as an infectious disease necessitates quarantine and isolation spaces. To accommodate that need, the Health Center has established both spaces in conjunction with the Office of Residence Life. Each space is capable of housing 14 individuals — seven males and seven females — and Guertler said the Center isn’t “anticipating a need” to find space for more than that amount.
In the quarantine space — designed for patients who have been exposed to the virus but haven’t tested positive — each patient has a private room to prevent them from spreading or contracting the disease. In the isolation space — designed for patients who have tested positive for the virus — patients are doubled up on account of their inability to give each other a disease they already have, Guertler said. The current situation isn’t ideal, he said, but it’s the best the Health Center has right now.
“The optimal space is a private room with a private bathroom,” Guertler said. “Those are few and far between on campus, and they’re spread out all over the place, which then causes logistical problems. So, you know, the next best thing is a place where you can put everybody relatively together, but they can stay in their own room to limit contact with others.”
Read said the university isn’t making the locations of those spaces public due a non-disclosure policy for emergency preparedness plans which she said are exempt under FOIA, as well as in the interest of patient privacy.
In light of the situation, Guertler said, along with other situational changes, staff numbers have been cut back. He said the Health Center is staffed by full-time and salaried employees, as well as hourly wage employees. With the reduction in Health Center operations, he said, “We’ve had to ask some of the hourly employees not to report because we don’t have work for them to do.”
The remaining staff, in addition to the “standard training you go through in medicine,” have been provided with guidance on treating coronavirus cases. Most of that guidance focusing on the use of personal protection equipment the Health Center has — “gowns, gloves and 95 masks and goggles” — due to the coronavirus’ transmission similarities to the flu, Guertler said.
It’s also for staff — and student — safety that students are given masks upon entering the Health Center, Guertler said. Not only does it keep individuals in the Health Center safe, he said, but it illustrates the seriousness with which coronavirus should be treated.
“The message that I think it sends to people is to cement in their minds that this is a significant disease — this isn’t just the flu,” Guertler said. “There are a lot of similarities with the flu as to how it’s carried and how it’s passed and handwashing and covering your cough — all that is very similar — but the mortality rate and the ease of infection, the contagiousness of this, is greater.”
As the coronavirus continues to spread across Virginia and permeate the JMU community, the Health Center continues to adapt to the changes COVID-19 has brought about, and Guertler said that more operations are likely to change as the situation progresses.
“After it settles out and we get a feel for what things are going to look like on campus — how many people are here, how many people are in the community, what is the demand for our services and which services are being requested — then, we will be looking at, ‘OK. How can we accommodate these requests and keep everybody safe?’” Guertler said.
While there are several unknowns with the ever evolving situation, Read said, the university’s leadership is doing what it can to work through the craze and find solutions.
“Lines of communication are constantly open, and when we’re not meeting in person, there’s phone calls and conferences,” Read said. “This isn’t something we’re doing between nine to five; it’s something that we have been living nonstop.”
Contact Jake Conley at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.