COVID-19 dashboard enhancements, operational contingencies

Dear campus community,

We have effectively managed to reopen in-person operations, and our community is two and a half weeks into the new school year. We are solving problems as they arise and adapting as we find new and better ways to manage in this unprecedented time.

With some experts estimating a full national recovery from the pandemic as far as a year away, we have come to understand our circumstance as a marathon, not a sprint. Our planning is framed by the assumption that the effects of the pandemic could continue to extend for a long and undeterminable duration. I hope I am wrong, but hope is not a strategy. We must be realistic about what we face and flexible in how we adapt to shifting circumstances. Being practical means we must frame our thinking accordingly. Instead of considering our large university as one monolithic entity with a single, predetermined course, we must use our heterogeneity to our advantage in crafting solutions and responses to the crisis. The faculty have already been doing this in developing courses with five modalities to fit the educational circumstances in their respective departments. All buildings and units have unique operational plans placing safety first, yet crafted to fit individual circumstances. By thinking in multifaceted, non-binary terms, at a micro, not macro scale, we have also deployed targeted solutions that allow for safe continuity of University operations. This is the thinking that has informed our Response and Recovery Plan, which can be found on the Safe Return Plan website.

Response and Recovery Plan 
The Response and Recovery Plan provides a framework for decision-making as we continuously assess the latest COVID-19 data about our community. It takes a matrix approach to establish operating phases that rise and fall based on six key factors: community spread, trends in COVID-19 cases on campus, hospital admissions, contact tracing and isolation resources, test availability and the availability of Personal Protective Equipment, or PPE. The University’s levels of service in instruction, research, cocurricular and administrative functions, whether they are in-person or virtual, are guided by the operational phase and determined by the relevant division leader in consultation with the President, President’s Cabinet and division stakeholders as appropriate.

I appreciate the thoughtful counsel and good work of the Contingency Planning Task Force, chaired by Dr. Terri Goss Kinzy, vice president for research and innovation. The full list of contributors to this effort can be found on page three of the plan, and we owe them all a debt of gratitude.

So, where do we stand today in relation to the plan? Our current status is Phase 2. We have no hospital admissions, and there are sufficient PPE, testing, contact tracing and isolation resources. Total incidence of COVID-19 cases at WMU is 0.7% of the population, with 165 active cases, as of the end of the day Friday, Sept. 19, among a total student, faculty and staff population of 23,353.

However, community spread is a factor that we continue to watch carefully. We assess our data at regularly scheduled meetings between WMU’s COVID-19 Response Coordination team leaders and our county health officials. At its most recent meeting, the group concluded that we are seeing evidence of increasing disease transmission among WMU students. This is what we might expect following our campus return and the Labor Day holiday, as there is still communitywide disease transmission in our county. The majority of the positive cases seem to be stemming from off-campus living situations and off-campus social gatherings.

While this trend has our attention, we also understand that it is consistent with what our local officials have seen in the general community. They are finding that individuals throughout Kalamazoo County are not necessarily being exposed while at work or school, as there are strict public health risk mitigation measures in those settings. The exposure is most often happening in informal social gatherings where people are not as vigilant about following public health precautions.

I cannot overemphasize how critical it is that everyone take individual ownership and responsibility to avoid these parties and gatherings, consistently practice social distancing and wear a mask. These are the keys that will determine how much of our University will remain open without disruption. The data shows we must do better if we hope to maintain or improve our current operating status.

If you are interested in additional insight, the Kalamazoo County Health and Community Services Department has provided an assessment of our current status. We will continue to work with them and monitor the data.

Testing Availability at Sindecuse Health Center
The testing protocol at Sindecuse provides a good example of our flexible plan at work. Sindecuse had a handful of days where staff determined that capacity was not sufficient. I, along with other campus leaders, learned about wait-time concerns. Before we could call on Sindecuse to address the matter, the staff was already working on a solution. The center has added nurses to its staff and is hiring more, and it increased its contact tracing capacity. There are expanded hours for testing, and the staff has adapted policies and practices to expedite appointments and increase daily testing volume. Through these measures, Sindecuse has more than doubled its testing capability without delay. 

We understand that there may be some confusion about scheduling. When scheduling a test, please remember:

  • There is more testing capacity than is indicated in the patient portal for COVID-19 symptomatic or exposed individuals. So, those who are symptomatic or believe they have been exposed should complete their daily health survey accordingly, then make an appointment. If a timely appointment cannot be made through the online patient portal, call Sindecuse at (269) 387-3287. 
  • Tests are most effective five or more days after exposure. So, while a patient may want an immediate test and result, it is important to allow sufficient time to pass for an accurate test result.

To most effectively manage demand and need, Sindecuse has been prioritizing symptomatic or exposed individuals for testing, as assessed by a Sindecuse health provider. This helps us target testing where it is most critical in identifying those with the virus.

Other examples of flexible responses to the pandemic include a cluster of cases found in one academic program several weeks ago. A three-day shutdown allowed for cleaning and safety assessment. The program was back up and running quickly with no further issues. We also had a cluster of cases among nine student athletes in four sports. We suspended practice and established aggressive distancing precautions until we could fully assess the situation.

We will continue to monitor data, assess and adapt. Thank you to those who have sent questions and identified concerns. You are always welcome to reach out to me, and I encourage you to continue to send questions and concerns to Working together, we can continue to provide the best possible, yet safe University experience for our students.


Edward Montgomery