While work and learning went remote, hundreds stepped up their efforts on campus
This article first appeared in a summer publication related to the university’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. More articles will appear in The Daily and on the university and school social media accounts in upcoming weeks; visit case.edu/together to see more.
As Case Western Reserve prepares to welcome students back to campus this fall, faculty and staff are returning in a phased approach after working and teaching remotely since mid-March.
But for hundreds of employees, work on campus never stopped.
Throughout the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic, approximately 600 essential employees continued to report to campus to maintain safe working and living conditions—caring for students in Cleveland and beyond, conducting life-saving research, cleaning and disinfecting residences and workspaces, or providing meals for students, faculty and staff who remained.
“All of this was new, so we had to work together to answer the question: How do we keep people safe?” said Sara Lee (MED ’01), MD, executive director of University Health and Counseling Services (UHCS), who helps lead Case Western Reserve’s coronavirus response. “We knew we had to make sure that all the resources and best practices that existed were available to our community, but also make sure that we—health and counseling—were available as a resource to answer questions and be there if people needed us.”
Lee and her staff turned to telehealth for student care, with virtual “walk-in” visits that led to in-person care when needed. For the rest of campus, UHCS and the Division of Public Safety’s Office of Resiliency became critical resources, working closely with departments to answer questions about cleaning and disinfection, provide guidance on what to do if someone becomes sick, and coordinate services and resources for faculty and staff.
Critically, both departments quickly shifted to focus on the safe return of students, faculty and staff. Megan Koeth, director of resiliency, and her team collaborate with departments and individuals to create safety protocols and operations plans; coordinate the distribution of personal protective equipment; and conduct site visits to ensure offices, classrooms and labs follow all health guidelines.
Across campus, custodial and facilities staff have worked diligently to limit the virus’s spread, following strict cleaning protocols to disinfect workspaces, labs and residence halls.
“The biggest challenge was having to switch modes so abruptly,” said Joe Thomas, assistant director of housing facilities. “It was a huge undertaking to go from our normal daily activities to preparing to move students out, transition some to new housing and make sure their living spaces were disinfected—all while maintaining a proper social distance.”
Staff from the Office of Residence Life delivered meals to quarantined students, checked in on residential communities and hosted virtual gatherings for roughly 400 students who remained on campus. They also coordinated the packing, storage and delivery of student belongings left on campus.
“We could not have accomplished everything without our [student] resident assistants,” said Amber Karel-Gerace, residential community director.
Karel-Gerace described those who continued to report to campus during the state’s stay-at-home order as a “small but mighty” group, and noted that the experience gave her a new appreciation for essential employees—especially those within custodial services and Bon Appetit, the university’s foodservice partner.
Thomas, whose team is responsible for both custodial services and maintenance for residential facilities, explained that in addition to keeping students safe, the health of his staff is a priority.
“A lot of departments worked together to make sure we had the necessary information and equipment to do our jobs confidently,” he said. “That helped [my staff] feel more comfortable being on the front lines.”
Bon Appetit Executive Chef Vinnie Gaikens and a team of about 40 chefs and managers prepare hundreds of free boxed lunches, available to all essential employees on campus, as well as the hot meals for students in residence halls.
“There have definitely been frustrating moments along the way, as we’re constantly adapting to new information,” said Gaikens. “But there have been so many opportunities to feel part of something big. The sense of community you have when you’re working together as a group toward a shared goal, and a shared experience—it’s actually been kind of special.”
Cheryl Cameron, PhD, immunologist and assistant professor in the Department of Nutrition, may have felt more prepared than most to face the challenges of a global pandemic. On the front lines of the SARS outbreak at Toronto General Hospital in 2003, Cameron ultimately helped with the research response to the disease, making her uniquely qualified to confront the research needs of COVID-19.
Cameron’s research focuses on the immune system, and figuring out what is special or unique about a person that could predict their ability to handle disease and infection.
“One of the main things we’re looking for are sets of biomarkers or an immune response signature,” said Cameron. “We’re trying to predict who will have a mild, moderate or severe course, but also identify what a beneficial immune response looks like.”
This article was originally published July 23, 2020.