How a state university became a national model for COVID-19 response
It took less than three weeks from the time the first case of coronavirus emerged in the United States for Rutgers University leaders to prepare its response to what would be one of the worst crises in world history. And it took just another two weeks for it to put together 14 emergency response teams of more than 200 individuals to ensure its campuses and health facilities would be protected.
Every institution in the U.S. has its own incredible story to share, but the sheer size and scope of the Rutgers response to COVID-19 over the past two years has been one of the great success stories of higher education. Several of its leaders have been tracking and gathering data and opened up about that journey in a case study, which parallels what others have done and is a different in a few other ways.
One of the unique challenges for Rutgers the past two years has been managing state, local and regional responses to the pandemic, as cases have exploded at various points near one of the largest cities in the world and in the most densely populated states in the U.S. Keeping the university running for 28,000 employees and 65,000-plus students has taken a monumental amount of teamwork, patience and persistence.
“A sustained crisis of this magnitude required constant adjustment to our plans and coordination among all of our groups so that we could continue our academic, scientific, patient and business practices while never losing sight of our students, especially in returning their college experience to them,” said Antonio Calcado, executive vice president and chief operating officer. “I am proud of our team leads who flawlessly guided the university through this process and deserve all the credit for our success.”
It also required heady decision-making. College leaders might recall, Rutgers was the first major university system in the nation to embrace a campuswide vaccine mandate. Many university systems waited months to do so, and thousands still haven’t climbed aboard even as national public health officials and studies have documented the potential severe outcomes for those who are unvaccinated. At the same time, it allowed for religious and medical exemptions and encouraged employees to get them.
“It was quite clear from earlier experiences globally that hesitation would result in misinformation, confusion, fear and degraded community cohesion, and ultimately serious illness and the loss of life,” Rutgers authors, led by Calcado, noted. “From the beginning, Rutgers was on the front lines, using the full power of its science, innovation, and determination with the aim of creating an oasis of health within a very threatening environment.”
The charge was led by a series of stakeholders, but none perhaps more important than its Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences (RBHS). “Our RBHS division, which includes two medical schools as well as schools of public health, nursing and pharmacy, already had a history of working together to provide interdisciplinary leadership and expertise,” said Brian Strom, chancellor of RBHS. “This infrastructure allowed us to collaborate and quickly address each issue the pandemic presented.”
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On March 18, Gov. Phil Murphy ordered the closure of schools and higher ed institutions to in-person, four days after the first case was identified on campus and just a day after Rutgers wiped out its in-person commencement. Rutgers powered through virtual commencements for health care students so they could assist hospitals in the crisis. RBHS leaders and emergency response teams met daily to discuss issues, resources and solutions. Another team of leaders across several health departments, clinical affairs and communications handled the response. University stakeholders worked together to suspend study abroad and get student overseas back home; get international students returned to their countries if possible, and get domestic residents back home.
Just a couple of months later, Rutgers also installed a new president, Jonathan Holloway, who announced the university would remain remote with a few exceptions through the fall before starting to welcome some students back. Throughout, Rutgers has maintained numerous channels to keep students and staff informed and has been out front on messaging around decision-making and data on its campuses, notably its “Return to Rutgers” plan for its community and through several town halls. They even got out front on potential vaccine hesitancy. Mostly, they’ve had good news to share.
Rutgers’ vaccination rate reported at the start of the fall semester was 99.5% for students and 97% among faculty. The vast majority also have received booster shots because of a Jan. 31 requirement imposed by the university. Thanks to a mask mandate, too, Rutgers has had a 1.29% positivity rate throughout the pandemic, with every week until late December 2021 posting less than 3%. There was a spike in cases during the Christmas break and first three weeks of January because of the highly contagious omicron variant, but its campuses were not open for in-person or residential experiences during that time. Over the past two weeks, there have been only a combined 17 cases.
Rutgers officials noted several important lessons learned that were instrumental in getting through the past two years and as they look ahead:
- “Maintaining core values and guidelines was critical in all of its planning and execution;
- Working across departments and breaking down barriers to eliminate silos and get the most out of a vast array of knowledge stakeholders and the information that is available to leaders on their own campuses;
- Consistent communication across many channels proved to be a winning strategy. Messaging not only covered general audiences but also specific, targeted groups when necessary. Consistently driving home values and facts behind decision-making were also key;
- Both leaders and managers saw their roles morphing as they came together to find solutions to the crisis, and that was a critical barrier-breaker in achieving success.”
But researchers noted the timing of the release of the study, which is occurring with no end to the pandemic in sight. “We are now entering the third academic year of disruption, and each day new developments further blur this issue,” they wrote.