On March 16th, 2020, President Dan Dibiaso sent out an email to the Ohio Northern University (ONU) community with the devastating announcement that the whole campus will be virtual until further notice. No one could have predicted the events that would transpire after that solemn email. Tireless attempts of distanced education, disbanded organizations, and a disconnect between students and the ONU community left ONU’s campus bare and almost unrecognizable.
With the 2nd anniversary of the email recently passed, students can finally see a light at the end of the tunnel.
After an announcement from the American Pharmacist Association (APhA) via email on February 23rd, 2022 the mask mandate was lifted according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in all states except Hawaii. For ONU, the news came shortly after. On February 25th, 2022, masks were made optional on campus, along with other COVID-19 restrictions alleviated or lightened. President Dan’s email detailed the updated Safety Plan in regards to surveillance testing, quarantine, and isolation periods as well.
This came as a shock to some students and faculty as the threat of the Delta and Omicron strain loomed over the returning campus from winter break with a stricter Safety Plan announced in early January. So the question was asked: why now?
These decisions are ultimately made by the ONU COVID-19 Implementation Team. This committee is made up of key players in the community who are involved in the protection and health of the university. Some of those members consist of Dr. Micheal Rush (Director of Healthwise), Dr. Andrew Roecker, Dean Steve Martin, members of Public Safety, Student Services, the Health Center, First-Responders, President Dan Dibiaso, Provost Juile Hartig, Dr. Andraine Thompson-Bradshaw, and several other cabinet members.
Dean Steve Martin, Ph.D., M.Sc., R.Ph., of the Raabe College of Pharmacy and member of the Implementation team enlightened the community on the conversations that led to the development of the new Safety Plan and whether the university was at a point where it could be opened back up again. He said,
“Ohio Northern has maintained a conservative institution in terms of public health measures, although we never did require vaccinations. President Dan especially has also been remarkably nimble in hopes of change, especially with lifting the mask mandate. Since the get-go, we have been in lockstep with the CDC. Even though we had a high percentage of vaccinated students, here in Hardin County we continued to have very high cases per 100,000, which was what the CDC was using to evaluate those communities. The county was labeled ‘High Risk’ according to the CDC. I advocated very strongly that we cannot pick and choose which guidelines from the CDC we were going to follow, and the committee agreed.”
With COVID-19 quickly changing constantly, the committee was forced to make announcements based on the current information. This may have been what led to several cancellations of school-sponsored trips at the beginning of 2022. Dean Martin continued to advocate for evidence-based decision making, as he says,
“If you looked at our numbers [at ONU] in January, they were pretty startling. In week one of the semester, we had 125-130 cases of COVID. That is more than we had all of the fall semester. Yet, if you watch the data as the weeks go on, it just falls off the table. There was a real concern, but no conversation about sending people home. We just wanted to ask: how can we keep our people safe?”
President DiBiaso also pulled together a smaller group of healthcare professionals to dig into more recent health-related topics for the rapid changes observed throughout the course of the pandemic. A part of that team, Dr. Karen Kier Ph.D., M.Sc., R.Ph., BCPS, BCACP, CTTS, FASHP, FCCP, a Professor of Clinical Pharmacy, Director of the Drug and Health Information Center for over 35 years, and member of the smaller Healthwise COVID-19 team, helped students understand why the decision was made now as well.
“In early January, the data looked bad. It was showing threats of whether we could maintain the Safety Plan we had now. There were discussions on plans if we had to return to stricter guidelines. The only hope was to look at other places, the East and West coast, where Omicron had already traveled.”
With the scientific literature at the time pointing to ONU getting hit hard with the variants, the COVID-19 Implementation Team attempted to prepare for the worst as the university has a responsibility for the public health of the students and community. Fortunately, the school was not a trend in the data of high transmissions. Dean Martin explains that,
“We started to talk about whether we could look at local data to make a decision about masking. Before we had to make that decision, the case numbers went down, and the CDC revised their evaluations on those community risk levels. We are in a much different case than we were, say two weeks ago.”
When the Healthwise Team, which has a meeting every Monday morning to discuss important information to consider and make recommendations, was made aware of the mask mandate discussion at the committee level, conversations were everywhere. Dr. Kier said they began to think about several things, such as, “the surveillance system, and how we were going to manage symptomatic patients, and how accurate our tests were with the new isolation guidelines…” She goes on to explain the process regarding the changes to the Safety Plan,
“The CDC data and guidance was definitely part of the conversation. Looking at the information at national recommendations is important, but the determining factor came down to the data. What we were seeing on campus, the community, local areas, and hospital data lead us in our decision. A lot of people do not realize that, due to the fact that Ohio Northern has its own surveillance system for COVID on top of following websites that provided positivity updates about COVID statistics on college campuses, we had better internal data than you can find at most places. We routinely look at the literature, nation guidelines, our data… There were a lot of different factors that went in, but probably the biggest area of debate was not the question of masks, as it was surveillance.”
Previously, ONU held the approach in regards to surveillance by utilizing self-reported testing results and a negative test before returning to school. Effective on August 23rd, 2022, President DiBiaoso detailed the surveillance program via email and stated that “unvaccinated students, faculty and staff will be required to test weekly as the academic year begins. Those who have been vaccinated against COVID-19 and reported their status to the University will not have to test.” According to ONU’s Student Senate’s Monthly Student Feedback Form (MSFF), a recurring monthly Google Form sent out to students to voice their concerns anonymously, there was a large amount of pushback from students subjected to the testing. Students felt as if they were being “forced into getting the vaccine or else they would have to keep up with unrealistic scheduling,” for COVID testing.
Dr. Kier explains that it was controversial within the committee on whether non-symptomatic surveillance should continue to be a requirement for the Safety Plan for those not up-to-date. With the threat of what campus may look like in the few weeks after Spring Break, there was intense discussion about routine surveillance being dropped. Ultimately, the COVID committee made the following statement in the email on February 23rd,
“Weekly COVID-19 surveillance testing is discontinued. Symptomatic testing will be available for all students, faculty, and staff on campus as needed. Those experiencing symptoms should be tested at the ONU HealthWise testing facility in Stambaugh Hall, which will be open weekdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Students participating in performing arts and intercollegiate athletics will continue to be tested according to testing protocols established by their programs or by the NCAA as appropriate.”
Dr. Kier explained that “[Healthwise] still offers all the same services for COVID, but not the routine surveillance. ”
The concern for COVID may seem to have trinkled off as only a small percentage of students continue to wear masks after the mandate was lifted, but Dean Martin continues to remind those students of the following:
“For people who continue to be concerned because of risk to them or someone they may interact with, wearing a well-fitted mask is incredibly good protection along with vaccination. I would estimate about 10% of our students and 20% of our faculty continue to wear a mask, I think they can feel comfortable, if they are vaccinated and wear that mask, that they have very low risk because we have a high vaccination rate on campus and our overall number of cases are very low and the tight-fitting N95 masks are very efficient.”
But Dr. Kier still expresses her concern for the transmission levels seen in Logan County even with the protection. She states,
“There are still counties that are in high transmission levels for the virus. President Dan, in his email, made it clear that these guidelines can change based on a next variant or a surge in cases in any impacting communities. The committee made the decision ultimately with as much information as they could get. This committee, Healthwise, and the health center have worked really hard to protect the campus, and we understand that those decisions are hard and may not always be very popular. But I think the ONU community should be proud to have these people working ultimately in their best interests. I think the students should be commended too because college is hard enough without a bunch of restrictions, but the ONU students have been very supportive and done very well in general to follow the policies sent out by the university. Our students have done an exceptional job; there is just something about an ONU student that makes you really proud.”
Dr. Kier also expressed her gratitude for the interns hired to help manage the large volume of surveillance and testing that, with this announcement, the team had to let go after two years. She explained that it was a great opportunity for those interns regardless since it “changed their outlook on pharmacy and minds on what an ambulatory pharmacist can do, and gave them some insight on rotations and future options.”
This pandemic has impacted the traditional college experience for millions of students over the past two years. The ONU community as a whole have tried to adapt and find a sense of normalcy within the everchanging guidelines and recommendations. Significant life-events, such as graduation or senior night for athletes, were lost to those students, but a relief may be in sight as the mask mandate was lifted.