By SUSAN JONES
As politicians debate whether the coronavirus COVID-19 poses a serious risk to the United States, Pitt officials are not waiting to find out.
“In late January, we started the planning process for what was potentially headed our way,” Ted Fritz, associate vice chancellor for public safety, said from the University’s Emergency Operations Center in the Public Safety Building on Forbes Avenue.
FOR THE MOST UP TO DATE INFORMATION ON PITT’S RESPONSE, GO TO EMERGENCY.PITT.EDU.
That process has grown over the past six weeks to include a group of about 25 people from throughout the University, who all met together for the first time on March 3, looking at all the different issues Pitt could encounter if the disease spreads to near or on its campuses. Those people are now tasked to the Emergency Operations Center.
“When we activated the Emergency Operations Center, what does that mean?” Fritz said. “That doesn't mean necessarily that you have 40 people in here just looking at a screen, but it does mean that those folks know that their priorities are now to deal with this situation and if need be, we can call on folks at any particular time to start assisting.”
Much of what the team is doing now is digesting all the information available, including guidance from the Centers for Disease Control (which has specific guidance for higher education leaders), the World Health Organization and the state and county health departments and looking at what other universities are doing and figuring out how it all applies to Pitt. “Circumstances change not even daily, it's almost hourly,” he said.
“We have to be the holders of the facts,” Fritz said. “We have to digest what's coming down or what maybe we're hearing, and make sure it's accurate, before you go reacting to it. And to do that, it requires more and more resources and time and effort from folks whose ordinary jobs are put to the side.”
This includes people from Student Affairs, housing and dining services, communications and many more. Each has been asked to look at their areas to see what will be needed if the epidemic spreads, such as how to maintain food services if there are widespread worker shortages.
Pitt has had a pandemic preparedness plan (accessible with a Pitt sign-on) since 2007, which was developed during a bird flu scare and has been updated regularly since then. The most recent update was in August 2019, before the recent health crisis, and new revisions are being worked on now.
As of this morning, there were 159 confirmed cases in the United States, and 11 deaths — 10 in Washington state and one in California, according to information compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Worldwide there are close to 96,000 cases and 3,286 deaths. CDC officials have said the spread of the disease in the U.S. is “not so much a question of if, but a question of when.” So far, no cases have been reported in Pennsylvania, but there are 13 confirmed cases in New York state.
Right now, the University is on Response Level B, High Alert of the pandemic preparedness plan. This level includes the development of the emergency website to keep faculty, staff, students and parents informed. The site has had more than 9,000 page views over the past two weeks. Fritz also spoke March 4 to Faculty Assembly about the actions that have been taken so far.
The plan also calls for special attention to be paid to members of the University community who are in foreign countries.
As of March 3, Pitt had recalled 68 students who were studying abroad in Italy, South Korea, Japan, France, Germany and Spain. Those students will be going to their homes and are being asked to practice voluntary social distancing for 14 days. The University is working with them to complete their studies.
On March 4, the University announced it was cancelling all University-sponsored spring break trips to foreign countries or that require domestic air travel, affecting 162 students. (See message from Provost Ann Cudd.)
Carnegie Mellon University on March 4 suspended indefinitely all international university-sponsored travel for faculty, staff and students, but Pitt has not gone that far yet.
The Response Level would move up to full alert if there are confirmed reports of human-to-human transmission of the virus in the vicinity of any Pitt campus, which means basically all of Western Pennsylvania.
This is the level the emergency team is planning for now. This includes possibly limiting mass gatherings. Stanford University, which is near several reported cases, this week encouraged university units to cancel or postpone events that involve more than 150 people.
A nearby coronavirus case also might necessitate more social distancing, which could include a temporary suspension of classes and more employees being asked or requesting to work from home. This planning would have to be done by each unit.
“We're putting out guidance here for the University, … then there's certain things they have to do in their business unit or their responsibilities center to take the planning a step further,” said Jay Frerotte, director of environmental safety, who helped devise the initial pandemic preparedness plan in 2007. “Who's essential and who can work from home and how do they enable that. And if they have students in that responsibilities center, how are they doing distance learning for them. We can't begin to plan all of that, we need planning at the business unit level to really enact all of this, and we need them to start thinking about those types of things.”
Fritz said the Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences is planning a work-from-home drill next week, “They're telling their staff, if you can work from home, please work from home Tuesday, and go through it just like you would if you were told you have to work from home.”
He plans to get a report back from that drill and use the information gathered as a model for other units.
The provost this week put out a memo on “instructional continuity” if classes are disrupted. Information available from the Center for Teaching and Learning can help faculty set up alternative ways to communicate with students. Sometimes that could just mean using email to assign readings and receive papers.
The University also has to prepare for the students who are not able to leave campus. Frerotte said the models they have run predict 5 percent of undergraduates would remain on campus, and housing and food services would have to be provided to them.
Human Resources also is putting together some guidance on leave policy to deal with employees’ own illnesses or if they have to stay home to care for sick family members or children whose schools are closed. “You don't want to be too restrictive about it,” Fritz said. “If somebody is ill, they should stay home, and not just coronavirus ill.”
Any student or employee who does become sick with the virus, will need to have clearance in writing from their personal physician and clearance from Pitt’s employee or student health system to return to work. Those who have been asked to do social distancing will be monitored by the University by phone.
The preparedness plan also has guidance for Response Level D, if the disease becomes widespread in our area, and Response Level E, if there is a case on one of Pitt’s campuses. The plan goes into details about where to house infected students, how and where to set up a quarantine, how to sustain research continuity and funding, how to deal with as high as 40 percent absenteeism among employees and much more.
“The devil's in the details and it’s really important to have that,” Fritz said. “Because it's one thing to say, ‘Oh yeah, we'll have food,’ but it’s another to say for how many people, for how long.”
Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-648-4294.
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