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In the spring of 2020, universities around the world were asking the same question: How could institutions help people stay healthy during the COVID-19 pandemic while continuing the work of education and research?
Like many others, the University of Pittsburgh swiftly pivoted to online learning in March 2020. There was not yet a vaccine, hospitals were overwhelmed, and COVID tests were in short supply. But as the University looked to fall 2020, it relied on renowned experts, trust in the Pitt community and a flexible approach to balance keeping people safe and fulfilling its mission.
Pitt’s COVID-control efforts brought together people from many different areas of the University, collecting input from faculty, staff and students, as well as expertise from the schools of the health sciences, the Department of Environmental Health and Safety (EHS) and UPMC. The COVID-19 Medical Response Office (CMRO) managed medical response, while the Resilience Steering Committee (RSC) led cross-campus coordination.
In January, the Journal of American College Health published a paper examining Pitt’s approach to managing COVID-19 on campus. The paper described how, combined with mitigation and communication, targeted surveillance testing — versus routine mass testing — could effectively control virus transmission on a large urban campus.
“We really strived for a moderate, middle-of-the-road effort to keep the campus as safe as possible, while also enabling the campus to function,” said John Williams, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases in the School of Medicine’s Department of Pediatrics, Henry L. Hillman Professor of Pediatric Immunology and professor of pediatrics, and founding director of and current adviser to the CMRO.
Controlling COVID-19 on Pitt campuses relied on three-pillars: mitigation, containment and communication.
Primary mitigation measures included promoting healthy behaviors like masking and physical distancing, altering the semester start and end dates, staggering campus repopulation and thoroughly assessing campus HVAC systems.
But one area where many institutions differed in their approach was containment. Some colleges that brought students back to campus spent millions of dollars to test every community member weekly — or more.
The CMRO at Pitt, however, used a surveillance testing model. Rather than testing every person on campus, Pitt tested a smaller representative sample of its population. This approach — which could serve as a model for other institutions and businesses — allowed for quick detection of an increase in cases without requiring every person to be tested weekly or giving people a false sense of security if they tested negative.
Additionally, all symptomatic students and close contacts were tested. Contact tracing helped supplement the surveillance testing. Through a confidential service led by EHS and School of Public Health graduate students, Pitt’s contact tracing efforts notified everyone who had been in close contact with someone who had tested positive for COVID-19 by phone and email and provided them with testing information and quarantine support.
Students who tested positive were provided dedicated isolation housing, where they received meals, health checks and support.
Throughout the process, one of the CMRO’s biggest priorities was ensuring the way forward was collaborative.
“We engaged the students very closely,” Williams said. “We had students in the COVID office. We had student committees. We communicated frequently with them, and they were part of the solution.”
Kate Ledger, acting vice chancellor for University Communications and Marketing (UCM), explained the thought process that went into communicating about COVID-19:
“The consistent use of clear messaging and communication collaboration across the University were critical throughout the work of the Resilience Steering Committee and the COVID-19 Medical Response Office,” Ledger said. “UCM relied on feedback from our audiences and a variety of channels to amplify COVID messaging.”
As the paper describes, students were very responsive. For example, around Halloween 2020, a number of parties occurred, violating Pitt’s COVID-19 rules and protocols. In addition to increasing testing, Pitt began a simple, direct mass communications campaign for students.
“We basically told them that [COVID] numbers are up, and if they continue to go up, we’ll all have to go home. We don’t want that, and we know you don’t either,” Williams said.
And it seems students were paying attention. There were fewer parties, fewer large gatherings, and case numbers declined. This example was one of many that exemplified the vital nature of collaboration from students, faculty and staff across the University. With their input on what would resonate, communications were more effective.
Another example of the importance of clear communications was an infographic that reached more than 637,000 people and was the University's most shared Facebook post between 2018 and 2020.
"Our marketing team partnered with the health sciences team to find easy-to-understand, visual ways to demonstrate the complex world of testing and timelines," Ledger said.
Putting what they learned simply, Williams shared: “Students are smart and caring. If you give them the chance, they’ll do the right thing. Many universities treated the students assuming they wouldn’t do the right thing. And we assumed, correctly, that most Pitt students would do the right thing and be a part of the solution.”
— Nick France