“One of the first discussions held about this new respiratory illness in China that was making the news was in the hallway of my department (epidemiology and biostatistics),” says Texas A&M School of Public Health Instructional Associate Professor Angela Clendenin. “Infectious Disease Epidemiologist Dr. Rebecca Fischer and I were talking about the news and the upcoming flu season. We commented that we needed to remind the students about the flu and now was the time to take extra precautions like getting a flu shot, eating healthy, getting plenty of rest and washing hands, etc. As SARS-CoV-2 began to appear in the United States, I was asked to represent the School of Public Health at a community leaders emergency planning meeting. Our local health department, the Brazos County Health District, was leading the meeting and it was clear that with only one epidemiologist on staff, they would need support. I began working with our administration to see what it would take to perhaps have student volunteers help to man phones, etc. But very quickly, things changed. Dr. Fischer and I both offered to volunteer our services in support of case investigation and contact tracing beginning March 13, 2020. In the weeks before we began that service, we realized this was going to be something big. I often said this is going to be like the Olympics for public health practitioners, the thing we train our entire lives for. That being said, we knew something was coming, we knew it was going to be bigger than what our community was prepared to handle, and we knew we were uniquely qualified in emergency management and public health to provide support.”
It was decided on March 13, 2020, to extend the spring break at Texas A&M University, thereby keeping over 70,000 students away from campus. This was a significant first part of the response because these students would have been returning to Bryan/College Station, TX, with unknown exposures and unknown disease status, as well as a likely extensive travel history. As the decision was made to bring students back in the fall of 2020 to a hybrid educational experience (some face-to-face with online options), the School of Public Health recognized Texas A&M was going to contribute to a very large spike in cases in the community that potentially could impact an already overburdened health care system.
“Dr. Fischer and I had already begun to volunteer at the health department with case investigations and contact tracing. As cases grew and an increasing number of Spanish speakers were impacted by the virus, we added another faculty member, Dr. Maria Perez-Patron, to our cadre at the health department,” Professor Clendenin says. “The numbers continued to grow, so we advocated to bring on eight high-performing graduate students to help with the increasing case investigation load. These students worked under our supervision as faculty members. What made this so special is that prior to this pandemic, we had not had many students engaged with our health department. There were limited internships and interactions. This represented a very positive shift in the relationship between our school and our local health department. Although ambivalent about bringing student volunteers in at first, the health department agreed since Dr. Fischer and I vouched for their maturity and abilities. Needless to say, the health department team was amazed at the caliber of students we brought in and what they were able to accomplish.”
Clendenin continues, “Dr. Fischer and I came up with a plan to build a cooperative arrangement where we would take on the bulk of the case investigation and contact tracing for Texas A&M University students and then any other groups the health department needed us to cover. From this initial conversation, the Texas A&M Covid Operations Center (the CoOp) was developed. A new partner, the Texas Workforce Commission through the local Workforce Solutions program, provided funding to hire people who were displaced from employment due to COVID to serve as contact tracers and case investigators at the CoOp. We also received some additional funds from Texas A&M to retain the students we brought on in the beginning and to hire additional support. The Texas A&M Health Science Center provided space and computers for the operation, and the ‘long hallway’ between Texas A&M University and the Brazos County Health District was formed.”
Right around the time the idea of the CoOp was being presented and forming, the School of Public Health hired Dr. Shawn Gibbs as the new Dean for the School of Public Health. He provided a wealth of expertise and his support to the CoOp plan. Dr. Fischer, Dr. Gibbs and Clendenin served on the newly formed contingency council at Texas A&M, consisting of university administrators to provide guidance and reporting on the status of COVID at the university to support decision-making. Out of this contingency council came the apparent need to make testing more accessible as students returned to campus. Working again with volunteers from the School of Public Health (faculty, staff and students), as well as across the university, pop-up testing locations, including a drive-through testing operation, were planned and scheduled on multiple dates.
Clendenin adds, “It is often said in the world of emergency management that meeting response partners in the field during a response is not the best time to meet partners. In between disasters is when partnerships should be formed, communication channels opened and collaborative training occur. If we invest in public health now and invest in regular, multidisciplinary training and conversations, we will build a much stronger foundation from which to respond the next time, which will help us all get out in front of the problem instead of just reacting to it. ‘Teamwork makes the dream work’ seems like such a cliché, but in this case, it doesn’t just make the dream work, it has the potential to save lives, and I can think of no more important thing in which to invest time, people and funding.”