Tuesday, August 16th, 2022
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Pandemic Preparedness: Life at MU During COVID-19

Preparedness is defined by the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) as “a continuous cycle of planning, organizing, training, equipping, exercising, evaluating and taking corrective action in an effort to ensure effective coordination during incident response.

At Millersville University, a team of 12 professionals from across the campus community has been working since August to handle the COVID-19 pandemic. The Incident Management Team (IMT) is the latest iteration of teams that have been working on behalf of the University since February 2020.

Co-chairing the IMT with Dr. Victor DeSantis is Dr. Duane Hagelgans. Hagelgans has 40-plus years of experience with disasters and emergencies. He is an associate professor at Millersville University, teaching within the Center for Disaster Research and Education. He retired as a chief officer with the Lancaster City Bureau of Fire and currently is the fire commissioner for Blue Rock Regional Fire District. He also serves as the emergency management coordinator for Manor Township and Millersville Borough.

“I appreciate the fact that President [Daniel] Wubah, when he asked me to lead the team, allowed us to do it in this fashion,” says Hagelgans. “Other universities aren’t set up like this. We have the right people in the right positions. We have people from health services, safety & environmental health, academics, student affairs, communications, etc. We have the right–size team, and we are allowed to weigh in on major campus decisions. If you’re going to have a disaster, you have to run it like a disaster.”

In light of the continued increase of COVID-19 cases nationally, the Fall Planning Team made the recommendation to cabinet, which they approved, to have the fall 2020 instruction provided primarily in an online/remote modality, and from which the IMT was created. That modality will continue in the spring 2021 semester. Close to 80% of the instruction is offered remotely. In addition, on-campus housing is open using a one-student-per-bedroom model. Dining is open on campus with social distancing modifications and more options for grab and-go meals.

A 48-page Fall Implementation Plan helped guide the University through the fall semester. The IMT then updated the plan to prepare for spring 2021.

THE PLAN COVERS:

    • Outbreak Mitigation Protocols & Emergency Planning
    • Health Safety Measures & Policies
    • Communications
    • Finance
    • Legal & Regulatory
    • Academics
    • Faculty & Faculty Governance
    • Student Services
    • Health Services
    • Information Technology
    • Campus Infrastructure
    • Government Affairs

“We’re prepared to deal with whatever disasters happen,” says Hagelgans, “This is an emergency management crisis, and we’re handling it like an emergency. The situation continues to change on a weekly and sometimes daily basis. Every day we look at data and the science around us, and we make our decisions using the best information we can—with a disease that does things not expected.”

“Our University took a very conservative approach so that our students, faculty and staff were at the forefront. July–October was steady and there was some hope, but then it spiked in November and we had to make adjustments.”

The IMT considers data points from a global aspect, of what’s happening in other nations; from a U.S. standpoint, looking at where and why spikes are occurring; and at data from Pennsylvania and the local region. They look at health data and the number of people in hospitals, and the science surrounding testing and vaccines.

“We look at any data statistic that has to do with COVID. Anything we can find about COVID from all reliable sources. We’re not getting our info from the news media; we’re getting it from scientists. We look at data and interpret it with a team of people from all walks of the University.”

The number of COVID cases is updated on a daily basis Monday – Friday on the University’s website. The numbers reported on the public dashboard are students who either live on or near campus, or have been on campus and faculty/staff who have been on campus. In addition to the dashboard, the University has a website dedicated to updates on COVID, FAQs and President Wubah sends communications to the campus community on a regular basis.

While some universities across the nation opened in the fall with mainly in-person classes and full residence halls, Millersville took a more conservative approach. “The number-one reason is because of the safety of our students, faculty and staff,” says Hagelgans. “We wanted to do what’s best for our campus community, understanding that many students enjoy a live classroom, as do faculty. We also know from almost a year’s worth of data that putting those people together in close proximity was a recipe for disaster. By limiting contact, we did what was best for our community. The decision wasn’t made lightly, because there are all sorts of impacts and financial implications. Our decisions were based on best practices for the health and safety of our overall community.”

As a long time emergency responder, Hagelgans says he’s learned how to manage the fatigue that goes with a pandemic. “Emergency management is one of those things where you’re going to be busy until it’s over. Most disasters have finite periods, but this is dragging on. You have to make time for yourself, whether like me, it’s building a shed or helping my son celebrate his birthday.”

“One thing I learned is that we need to understand that an event that is unusual is occurring, and the regular way of doing business isn’t always the best way to do it. How often have we heard,’this is how we’ve always done it’? That has caused us problems. We’re creatures of habit. If there’s one piece of advice that we’ve learned, you have to trust the experts.”

The IMT is working to have a safe spring semester and work toward their goal of having in-person graduations in May. “The decisions we make now will impact that goal. We need to sacrifice now to get to the end of this.”

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