Planning for a safe return

Student Health Services director Deborah Beck addresses risk mitigation efforts

University leaders have been preparing all summer for a safe return to campus. Student Health Services director Deborah Beck gives an overview of the university's efforts and addresses the responsibility of each member of our community to do their part.

With the increase that South Carolina has seen in cases of COVID-19, how can you ensure that our campus will be a safe place to be?

Our No.1 priority is the safety of our students, faculty and staff. We are excited to welcome you back, and we are doing everything we can to operate within a safe framework.

Our response to COVID-19 is based on four principles: the health, welfare and safety of our campus; limiting and mitigating the spread of the virus — not only in academic settings, but also in athletics; maintaining excellence in academics, research and athletics; and supporting the stability of the university.

We have a scalable risk mitigation plan. We will be monitoring the cases on campus, but it’s not just about the number of cases — it’s also about the severity of the cases and about the percentage of people who are testing positive. The infrastructure we have in place will be able to support our safe return.

We have significant health care capacity. Our Student Health Center is a 105,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art facility. It is the only accredited patient-centered medical home in the state of South Carolina and one of the few throughout the country, and we will maintain that quality, patient-centered care.

We have tremendously expanded telehealth, we have one of the best psychiatry and counseling centers anywhere, and we have a large number of providers. All of our physicians are board certified. We also have physician assistants, nurse practitioners and case managers. We work closely with the School of Medicine and with our community hospitals, so we have partners in place to help implement our risk mitigation plan.

We also have a tremendous advocacy and wellness group, and this is the group that will be leading our contact tracing and isolation. And we have expanded our mental health and emotional support systems so we can help students navigate these unfamiliar circumstances this fall.

What happens if there is a spike of cases during the semester? How will you know if it’s safe to keep operating in-person?

A lot of people have said, what are your numbers? How do you know whether it’s safe to continue classes?

There is no single number that will give you the answer. We are looking at 11 different factors. Those include testing capacity, case counts and analysis, wastewater monitoring, contact tracing, our campus community’s public health practices — whether people are wearing face coverings and maintaining distance — health care capacity and much more.

Just to look at one factor: We are one of the few universities that has the capacity to do wastewater testing. So if the wastewater tests at a certain level of contaminants one week, then we look to see if that is rising or falling from week to week. That gives us a sense of whether we have a large number of asymptomatic carriers, which can help us focus our testing and tracing efforts.

Our plan has flexibility built into it. We would go online if we exceed our university’s capacity or if we have a significant outbreak in the community.

We will be monitoring the cases on campus, but it’s not just about the number of cases — it’s also about the severity of the cases and about the percentage of people who are testing positive. The infrastructure we have in place will be able to support our safe return.

Deborah Beck, director, Student Health Services

What would you say to a faculty member or student who is apprehensive about coming back to campus?

We understand that some faculty members have some concerns, and that some parents and students have concerns, and we respect that. If a parent does not feel safe sending a student back to campus, we recommend that the student take courses online. If a faculty member is not on campus, that course will be delivered online. Our faculty have put forth tremendous effort in preparing those courses.

But our plan is comprehensive and flexible, our capacities are robust, and we are excited to welcome students back.

As small groups of faculty, staff and students have returned to campus, what have you seen so far in terms of the spread of COVID-19?

We have had a number of groups come back to campus, and in almost every group we are finding that 1.5 percent to 5 percent are asymptomatic positive. They are not showing symptoms and they don’t know they are positive — and that really makes the case as to why testing is so important.

Because of those asymptomatic cases and repopulating campus, we may see an increase in cases about two to two-and-a-half weeks after a group of students returns. When that increase occurs, there’s also a keen awareness of the danger among students and their friends, and they enhance their compliance with our mitigation strategies on their own. That points to the importance of peer-to-peer relationships in all of this: We all need to encourage each other to wear face coverings and practice social distancing whether on or off-campus.

What is the role of testing in keeping campus safe?

We want to test everyone so that we can capture those that are asymptomatic, diagnose as early as possible, gather point-in-time data, and have an opportunity for proactive contact tracing to prevent an outbreak.

We encourage you to take the test before you come back, and if that’s not possible then we want you to take the test as soon as you come back. For those who are living on campus, the test is mandatory. It’s much like measles, mumps and meningitis. We need students to upload one of three things to the MyHealthSpace portal: either a previous positive COVID-19 test result, a positive antibody test or a negative test taken within the past 7 to 10 days, which we have now extended to 14 days.

One of the reasons we want you to get tested before you arrive is because if you test positive, that gives you an opportunity to quarantine at home where your parents can take care of you or you can be cared for in your own community.

If you are getting a test out of state, look at pharmacies and your local health department for testing options. If you need help finding a testing site, you can look at our website or call our COVID line. If you are in the Columbia area, you can test on-campus at the Student Health Center.

For any student who tests positive, their needs will be met — medical needs, food, making sure they are set up to continue their classes. If a student tests positive first, we will reach out and ask what we can do to support you? How can we help monitor your medical condition? If you are having increasing symptoms, we want to know about it right upfront. Our electronic health system will help you and your friends stay healthy.

We care about you, we trust you, we want you here — and the only way we can do that is to get everyone tested to help prevent outbreaks on our campus.

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