As the novel coronavirus rips across Maryland, University Health Center employees are demanding that the center move all services online for two weeks so that staff may figure out how to treat the campus community during the pandemic while staying safe themselves.
Forty-two employees signed onto a letter sent late Sunday night to University of Maryland officials, calling for a “time-out” to be issued at the center — giving them time to develop consistent guidelines for sanitation, when to offer in-person versus virtual care and other decisions and procedures.
Since last week, Celina Sargusingh, a clinic coordinator at the center, has been working from home, along with most employees at the health center. Still, she stressed the urgency of establishing these uniform procedures for the health of her colleagues still working on site — and the health of all employees when they return to campus.
“It is really important that we get this right,” she said. “It is really important for me to feel that when I come in to work, that I’m not going to bring anything back home to my asthmatic daughter — that I’m not going to bring anything back home to my immunocompromised parents.”
In an email responding to the letter, student affairs vice president Warren Kelley highlighted the steps the university has already taken to protect the health and wellbeing of health center employees.
The physical health center is closed for all operations besides medical services — mental health services, substance abuse treatment and other programs are now provided remotely. Furthermore, Kelley wrote, what is typically a 100-person staff at the health center has been pared down to just three people: a doctor, a nurse and a housekeeper.
Students are also only allowed to make appointments by calling into the center, enabling clinical staff to speak with patients remotely and provide guidance that may not require them to visit the health center in-person. The health center’s hours have also been reduced to Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
But with emergency rooms and hospitals reeling from an influx of patients, and the growing risk of exposure to the novel coronavirus in these facilities, Kelley wrote that the healthcare profession needs primary care providers and outpatient centers to remain open — to reduce the pressure on “acute medical facilities” and needless exposure to COVID-19.s
And even though the university has moved classes online for the rest of the semester, Kelley wrote that about 800 students requested to stay on campus through spring break, and another 1,500 remain in housing affiliated with the university. The university also estimates that several thousand others still live in apartment complexes and houses near campus.
“For the time being, this is their home,” Kelley wrote. “They need our care, likely now more than ever.”
In their letter, employees emphasized that they care deeply for their students, and want to support them “in the safest ways possible.” They asserted that closing the health center temporarily, and transitioning completely to telemedicine for that period, is the only way to do so.
“These measures are necessary for everyone’s safety and could be the difference between life and death, for many of us,” the letter read. “Our students matter a great deal to us, but in order to support them, WE need to matter to you.”
On top of this precautions already taken by the university, Sargusingh and other employees want the center to outline exactly when students should be directed to visit the center in-person versus when they should be provided virtual care.
Last week, Sargusingh said people came to the center seeking treatment and services that could either be provided online or were not urgent — such as IUD insertions and prescription refills.
“What we’re looking for is clear institutional support with those guidelines about what kinds of appointments will be seen,” she said.
Furthermore, Sargusingh said, the center should clarify that it will only provide in-person care to patients with serious health issues, so that workers do not waste personal protective equipment — such as gloves and masks — when there is a national shortage of such supplies.
In his email, Kelley explained the current triage protocol. Most students are now accommodated remotely, but those who visit the center after calling ahead are met at the door — which is locked — by a clinician, wearing protective gear. The clinician takes their temperature, interviews them briefly and if it is necessary that they enter, requires them to wear a mask.
Additionally, Sargusingh said employees want the center to establish procedures in case a staff member is exposed to the novel coronavirus. She said the necessity for such a protocol was only underlined when the fourth campus community member tested positive for COVID-19 on Sunday. Students and parents will also be returning to campus soon to move belongings out of dorms and nearby apartment buildings, travelling from all over the country.
Employees say the center should also develop training to make sure everyone is on the same page regarding protocols for personal protective equipment and social distancing, as well as other procedures. In his email, Kelley wrote that the university has “trained our staff extensively and will continue to provide them with the necessary safety equipment to protect them.”
During the requested two-week period, health center employees say they would continue providing guidance and resources to patients over the phone or through their electronic medical records software, according to the letter.
Employees who have already been working from home have faced additional challenges. Some have received conflicting information about the hours they’re expected to work — whether it be on their regular schedules or between the center’s new limited hours, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Kimone Dixon, a pharmacy technician, has been on leave since last week, but she’s not sure whether it’s being taken from her accrued leave or if she’s on administrative leave. She’s not even sure what sort of payment she will receive during this period.
“Everything is so discombobulated,” she said. “In the next few days, next few weeks — when are we going to return to work? And if so, what are the protocols?”
While Dixon and Sargusingh both expressed their appreciation for the guidance and support they’ve received from health center leadership, they also wondered why the center didn’t have better procedures in place for confronting public health crises. They pointed to other outbreaks in the university’s history, such as adenovirus, meningitis, mumps and the flu.
If the university had a stronger foundation to build off when responding to the most recent pandemic, Sargusingh said the health center could’ve focused on issues such as triage protocol and the availability of personal protective equipment. It would have been nice to have some sort of plan at the outset, even if it had been subject to change, she said.
“Let’s get our act together,” said Sargusingh. “I cannot be putting myself in harm’s way because not enough attention was put into things that are really, really really worthy of attention.”