Lessons Learned: Valuable Takeaways from BU’s COVID Response
Lessons Learned: Valuable Takeaways from BU’s COVID Response
Adapt. Community. Ingenuity. Connections. Trust. Humble. Resilient. A few of the words people used to define the University’s response to a historic health crisis
If teaching and learning are at the core of what higher education is all about, then what Boston University learned from the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic is surely worth noting. Nobody is saying it’s over, but when classes resume in September, the massive infrastructure that BU mobilized in response to the coronavirus starting back in March 2020 will be integrated into the University’s existing health services.
We thought this was a good time to reflect on what lessons we learned from the experience, and what comes next, so BU Today reached out to those who were on the front lines helping to protect the campus community and asked them to share their perspectives.
It takes a village
Kevin Gonzales (COM’08, Questrom’15), director of operations, Kilachand Center for Integrated Life Sciences & Engineering; formerly director of operations/collection sites
It takes a village. Many people, after finding out about my job, complimented me on how easy the process is to get tested. It was not easy. So many people of different areas of expertise worked tirelessly to make this happen. Our success lies not only in the ability to provide this service to BU, but to make it appear seamless. I have a tremendous amount of respect for everyone behind the scenes who dedicated their time to put this together. When times were tough, I always knew that this team had my back.
No matter how much, it’s never enough
Daniel Camacho, Events & Conferences assistant director, conference housing; formerly assistant director, isolation housing
When the pandemic began, I worked on packing up the student rooms as they were sent home, and we would order 15,000 boxes, and I would say, that sure is a lot! It wasn’t enough. We thought that of course the Agganis Arena floor would be enough space to hold all of the boxes. It wasn’t enough. When we transitioned to quarantine and isolation housing and had to set up 600 apartments across campus, I thought, that sure is a lot of rooms! It wasn’t enough. Do we have enough linen packets? Nope, not enough. No matter what predictive measures we thought would get us through, it always felt like it was never enough. But we somehow managed to pull through, because the people involved in the effort were more than enough.
Interacting with community beyond Comm Ave
Madison Sullivan (SPH’20), assistant director of public health, Student Health Services; formerly director of COVID-19 management for BU Healthway
Our university is in the heart of Boston, which is wonderful during a Red Sox game, not so wonderful during a pandemic. We had to understand the ways our community was going to interact with the Boston community as well as the state of Massachusetts. We quickly learned we needed consistent and thorough communication with Boston Public Health and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. This meant establishing relationships before challenges arose and understanding each stakeholder’s role. This involved participating in weekly and sometimes daily meetings, registering and training on the state’s reporting system, and creating a workflow for collaboration. It takes a village and it takes working across communities, because our public health impact goes far beyond the BU campus lines.
No egos allowed
Lynn Doucette-Stamm, executive director, Clinical Testing Laboratory
Joining BU to tackle the pandemic has been life-changing for myself as well as for many within our team. This unique opportunity allowed all involved to be part of a single-minded group to tackle this persistent virus while leaving all of our egos at the door. Despite the long hours, hard work, and at times almost impossible deadlines, this endeavor will always be an accomplishment we can be proud to say we were part of at BU.
The importance of simple check-ins
Aminata Bah (SPH’23), registered nurse, Student Health Services; formerly COVID-19 registered nurse specialist
I never realized the impact of checking in on someone. Asking students, and employees, ‘How are you doing?’ has arguably never been more important during a time like the pandemic. I am grateful that people felt like they could open up to me and be vulnerable about their experiences over the phone. I’ve been able to build trust, and really listen to people. I reminded them they have a whole team of people to turn to for support, regardless of the day or time. I reminded them that we care, and we want the best outcomes for them. This role helped me see that the little things like checking in can really help someone get through a tough time.
Small connections = big results
Grace Yee (Sargent’17), staff nurse practitioner, Occupational Health Center; formerly COVID-19 nurse practitioner case manager
The Back2BU initiative and the Healthway organization were created in a very short time and experienced rapidly changing staffing needs as they were developed. Not only was quickly finding quality candidates a challenge, but on top of that, the implementation of these roles was a constantly moving target. Protocols and guidelines were continuously being updated and we had to keep growing and supporting each other as a team. You could see the emotional toll the pandemic was having on the staff and had to be cognizant of burnout and its effects on the people we worked with. Connecting with one another outside the topic of COVID-19 and work was critical to teamwork, efficiency, and the care we provided. Daily topic chats, book clubs, newsletters, and continuing education all brought opportunities to connect. All of these small efforts helped to cultivate a strong sense of community and teamwork in Healthway. None of this would have been possible without a group of individuals that could constantly find new ways to come together to respond to the unique challenges of each day.
A one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work
Hannah E. Landsberg (Sargent’12, SPH’13), associate director, Student Health Services; formerly director of COVID-19 management, BU Healthway
While no one person was immune to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, certain individuals and populations were disproportionately impacted as the pandemic highlighted and exacerbated the health inequities and disparities in our country and the world. We quickly learned that a “one-size-fits-all” approach to COVID-19 management, outreach, and education was not meeting the needs of our community—specifically, those most vulnerable for infection and severe disease. Instead of assuming, we started asking questions directly to different groups and populations. We showed up at collection sites with multilingual nurses and public health professionals at 6:30 in the morning to meet staff and ask how we could help. We listened, learned, and acted, and in doing so, became a stronger and healthier community overall.
And while recognizing problems is essential, the energy and focus is best spent on solving them. We were faced with new challenges and hurdles each day and had to adapt quickly. Surrounding yourself with solution-oriented colleagues and partners makes all the difference. In the midst of one of our hundreds of changes, a coworker shared: “It’s about changing things tomorrow, based on what we learned today.” Being humble with your flaws and brave with your solutions is a lesson that can take you far professionally and personally. There is never a time you can’t improve.
Investment in technology
Lloyd Rolles (Sargent’13, MET’19), director of technology, Student Health Services
BU’s investment in technology, specifically in business analytics, healthcare, and laboratory technology, provided us with a strong foundation for navigating through the many challenges that were presented to us during the pandemic. Technology was involved in nearly every aspect of the COVID-19 response. We have the tools and people in place to continue to strive for success.
Marc Deleppo, former Contact Tracing Program manager, then supervisor
One of our largest challenges was to build and sustain a level of trust between Heathway and the BU student body. Students shared extremely personal information with our contact tracers, including who they spent time with and where they were around campus. A great level of trust and cooperation between caregivers and students was essential. To build that trust we established direct relationships with student leaders to help bring our two groups closer together. Greek life leaders, sports team captains, and countless other student group leaders met with our team to help us understand the unique challenges that each of their groups faced due to COVID-19. On several occasions, these student leaders were able to act as liaisons between our staff and their student groups to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and care for our community.
Karina Rendon, registered nurse, Student Health Services; formerly isolation registered nurse
As an isolation nurse, I was impressed to see the resiliency of the students that were in isolation. Isolation can be physically challenging for some, and mentally challenging for most. Some students needed extra words of encouragement and TLC, but I hope they realize how strong they are for getting through the rough patches. I am so proud of each and every one of them, and I feel privileged that I was able to be a part of their journey.
Remember the unsung heroes
Carlos Vazquez, director, custodial operations, Facilities Management & Operations
I would like to thank all our colleagues at Facilities Management & Operations who worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic to provide a safe environment for the students, faculty, and staff of Boston University. I was truly inspired by their personal commitment when faced with unprecedented challenges. The team responded with creative strategies to address supply chain shortages, to provide personal protective equipment (PPE) and training, and to continuously improve University sterilization protocols. I want to recognize this group of unsung heroes, at every level, who worked on behalf of the entire Boston University community.
Adapt. Adapt. Adapt.
Jason Grochowalski, associate director, Residence Life
For me, adaptability was the ultimate takeaway to responding as successfully as possible to a pandemic. The pandemic caused constant change, and as we learned and gained experience, we had to…dare I say, pivot! From restructuring to remote work to new assigned duties, constant changes in messaging, and reorganizing roles, making wellness a core priority. It was an influx of change, constantly. Those that were comfortable with change found a way to help themselves and others. Fortunately, I work with an amazing, talented group of people that were able to adapt with focus and a positive attitude, and helped make our course-plotting a success as we navigated through the waves of change.
Michael Garon, director, finance and operations, BU Healthway
The biggest lesson I have learned in regards to the finance and operations realm of the pandemic response is that being adaptable is the most important trait. Nothing we do should be set in stone. We learned very early on in this organization that all of our planning should have off ramps and allow for changes. Part of that is trying to stay mentally even during the response. The situation changed so fast that making sure our organization could be in a position to pivot quickly and without my mood being too high or low, turned out to be very valuable.
Niharika Verma (COM’21), content strategist, student-led public health campaign F*ck It Won’t Cut It
More than ever, COVID-19 revealed my capabilities to adapt to different circumstances. It showcased just how resilient and flexible we can be. Situations drastically changed around us, and we had no control over them. Despite things going off the rails during the pandemic, I was able to find solace in controlling how I responded through helping people stay safe on campus by working on the F*ck It Won’t Cut It campaign.
Ingenuity and interaction
Linette Decarie (GRS’96, Questrom’02, Wheelock’16), assistant vice president, Analytical Services and Institutional Research
I have been at BU for nearly 25 years and really thought I had met everyone. I was wrong. My staff and I became very fast friends inside the trenches with the folks in Student Health Services and Occupational Health. I quickly learned that people really, really love data. I never fail to be amazed at people’s ingenuity in unusual situations. It was amazing to watch home offices spring out of the corners of people’s homes, with ironing board standing desks, furry coworkers, toddler breaks, and some of the most creative backgrounds. One colleague kept hanging up his own picture as “Employee of the Month” in his basement office. We found new ways to work and be even more productive, interactive, and supportive than we ever had been, and I hope we hold on to that spirit.
What is the COVID plan for the 2022-23 academic year? When Spring 2022 wound down, I know the hope was that Fall 2022 would be back to normal: no testing or masking requirements. But COVID continues to mutate, becoming, at each iteration, more transmissible and adept at evading vaccination and previous exposure.
BA.5 is building toward a surge in the US, and who knows what will be next. Yes, more and more of us have some degree of immunity, often “hybrid” immunity (both vaccinations and previous infection). The chance of serious illness or death is diminishing for many of us, but we don’t really know what the consequences of repeated infections will be for many in our community. Some, of course, are already suffering from long-COVID. (It would be great if BU could be publicly tracking how our community is doing. Back the lack of even a dashboard doesn’t give me hope this would be done.)
Is BU really planning to “fly blind” in the fall, just expecting people will catch COVID once or twice a year?
Thank you, Alley, for saying what everyone is thinking! This is a great article and it’s right to celebrate past efforts to keep us all safe and keep operations running, but the pandemic is not over. If the precautions BU took in the past are abandoned this fall, and these new variants live up to their grim promise, we will have non-stop community spread of Covid. As staff, faculty, and students take time off to recover, systems will shut down and things will not run as smoothly. We have seen what happens when mask mandates are lifted: no one in my building on campus wears masks. It’s not enough that “the massive infrastructure that BU mobilized… will be integrated into the University’s existing health services.” If keeping vulnerable staff, faculty, and students safe matters to BU at all, “flying blind” is not going to cut it.
The plan that the BU Covid policymakers seem to be supporting is “no masks, no tests, no data: no problem!”
Thank you to BU for making a stellar effort to manage the impossible challenges of COVID19.