On June 24, 2020, the ONU Board of Trustees endorsed the University’s COVID-19 safety plan for resuming in-person education for fall semester 2020. The plan was developed by incorporating the informed efforts of several work groups and special teams, leadership reviews undertaken over several weeks, and helpful suggestions during a campus comment period. The plan was reviewed and fine-tuned throughout the summer to ensure continued compliance with guidance from federal and state governments and the local health department. This fall, ONU executed its implementation plan derived from the work done over the summer. Students, faculty and staff have worked tirelessly over the past seven months to ensure that the health, safety and well-being of every member of the ONU community remains our top priority. These are their stories.
As dean of Ohio Northern University’s Raabe College of Pharmacy, Dr. Steven Martin is charged with preparing future generations of pharmacists to be skilled, knowledgeable and versatile. Pharmacists are the most accessible and most frequently visited health care professionals worldwide, and ONU has always put a premium on training pharmacy students to handle a wide variety of patient needs.
This year, Martin put into practice the very kind of versatility ONU pharmacists are known for when ONU President Dan DiBiasio tasked him with leading the University’s COVID-19 testing program. A viable testing program would be necessary for the administration to even consider a return to in-person instruction this fall, so Martin had to quickly change gears from seeing to the end of an academic year disrupted by a pandemic, to laying the groundwork for an on-campus testing program for a campus of 3,000 people in mere weeks.
Work began in April with the formation of the ONU COVID-19 Task Force testing team. The team studied the available literature about COVID testing, learned about the various tests available and examined public health responses to previous pandemics. The team created a recommendation for the president and leadership to consider for the safe start of fall classes that included testing all students, faculty and staff prior to the start of fall classes, and an ongoing weekly surveillance program to identify covert COVID cases on campus.
“We met in early May to begin discussions on testing needs, including who, when, where, how, and how often. Classes began in August, and that was the first hurdle: preparing to test students as they returned back to campus. Then we put in place an ongoing surveillance program for the remainder of the semester,” says Martin.
To hear Martin describe it, it sounds like a routine day at the office. The reality was far from routine. For one thing, the University needed to test all fall athletes and marching band members first. This cohort of students typically arrives earlier than the rest of the student body to prepare for their respective seasons. This meant no gradual ramp-up for the testing program. Martin and his team would have to be ready to go at the outset with testing capacity for more than 650 students and staff.
ONU screened roughly 20 different testing providers and test options, weighing them on availability, cost and lag time from test to result. Test availability was a notable challenge, as early in the pandemic there were only a few testing facilities that had received emergency use authorization from the FDA. ONU ultimately contracted with a diagnostics company out of southeastern Michigan to provide baseline testing for all early arriving students.
“Luck had a lot to do with us getting started on the right foot,” says Martin. “I reached out to many people and followed the leads that each one gave me. That’s really how I came across the diagnostics company in Michigan that helped us early on, as well as the broker who was able to provide the first point-of-care testing supplies, the wholesaler who was able to provide additional POC supplies, and the company assisting us with home COVID testing.”
Luck may have played a role in the start of ONU’s testing program, but what kept it going throughout the semester was sheer determination and effort from ONU students, faculty and staff. After the initial baseline testing was completed, ONU’s on-campus surveillance program began with randomized testing of employees and students conducted by ONU HealthWise each week. These test results were recorded on a public dashboard on www.onu.edu to keep the campus community and public at large abreast of the impact of the pandemic on campus. As the semester came to a close, the team developed take-home testing kits for students to self-administer before returning to campus in January.
“We’ve just had a great outpouring of volunteerism from our ONU HealthWise and faculty pharmacists, and from our students and residents. They recognize the public health needs of our campus and have figured out a way to make testing and COVID management a priority,” says Martin.
The testing program has been one of the pillars of the University’s COVID-19 response this fall. It provided the data the administration needed to make decisions as the semester wore on. From the very start of the strategic planning around a safe return to in-person instruction this fall, ONU looked to draw upon its strengths to battle the pandemic, chief among them the Raabe College of Pharmacy. ONU HealthWise and the ONU HealthWise Pharmacy have been involved in providing health testing services for several years and have had some experience with working with the campus on flu vaccinations, health screenings and rural health clinics throughout Hardin County. They had the experience, knowledge and skill to handle the extra needs of an extraordinary year, and the leadership of a dean who also just happens to be an infectious disease specialist.
“I believe our students want to be on campus in classrooms and laboratories, on stage, on the field or on the court,” says Martin. “To make that happen they have been willing to give up some liberties and follow public health directives, such as avoiding large gatherings, wearing face masks and maintaining social distancing. They are doing their part, and I’m just so happy that we were able to do ours.”
The ONU testing team is comprised of Martin; Harold Schueler, assistant professor of forensic Biology; Dennis De Luca, associate professor of biological sciences; Lisa Walden, director of the medical laboratory science program; Karen Schroeder, director of health services; Ross Kauffman, director of public health; and Mike Rush, director of ONU HealthWise and pharmacy residency programs.