What colleges and universities shouldn’t overlook in their COVID-19 responses

Expert Insight

What colleges and universities shouldn’t overlook in their COVID-19 responses

Advice from two public health experts

In the race to respond quickly to COVID-19, colleges and university leaders are asking the question, are we missing things in our plans that could have serious downstream consequences for our communities?

EAB’s Megan Adams and Kaitlyn Maloney sat down with two public health experts from KFF (the Kaiser Family Foundation) with decades of experience, Dr. Jen Kates, the Senior Vice President and Director of Global Health and HIV Policy, and Dr. Josh Michaud, the Associate Director for Global Health Policy. They shared insights about what factors colleges and universities should consider, ways higher ed can lead their broader communities in this crisis, and how campuses could change post-virus.

  • 22 years at KFF
  • Serves on numerous federal and private sector advisory committees on global health and HIV issues
  • 9 years at KFF
  • Previously worked as an infectious disease epidemiologist with the U.S. Department of Defense

EAB:  An early result of this crisis is that colleges and universities are doing more short-term and long-term scenario planning. What factors and unintended consequences should universities not overlook?

KFF (Jen): One important thing they should look at is their current student health insurance policies, as well as the insurance profile of their students (many get insurance through their parents now, because of the ACA). If students are getting their care at the campus health center and it closes, students will have to find other providers. Are those providers out-of-network? What if they’re seeking care out of state? What will the out-of-pocket cost be to the student? Can students absorb those costs? Will there be a disproportionate impact on lower-income students?

KFF (Josh): It’s also important to look closely at what the policies around compensation and time off will be so that there is not differential treatment of groups, especially contractors and support staff. Staff are particularly important because they often have the least flexibility in their schedules.

Many courses at universities are reliant on adjunct professors and many would fall into the category of vulnerable population. What is their sick leave and compensation policy?

KFF (Jen): For the students, if an institution closes, it’s also their community that shuts down. This is their home away from home. How do you provide that cushion of support around them—not just meals but things like mental health support.  And if they are going to disperse, do they have another home to go to?

EAB: It seems like there are risks to keeping students in dorms if there is community spread. In this sense, is a college dorm pretty much like a cruise ship in terms of spreading disease?

KFF (Jen): Yes, unless a public health department takes it over and can institute the right precautions and measures.

EAB: COVID-19 is a threat to colleges and universities, but also a unique opportunity for them to play a leadership role in their regions and local communities. What should colleges and universities be doing to fulfill this mission as a public good?

KFF (Josh): Most universities have epidemiologists and there’s a role for them to play right away in local communication. That way communities aren’t relying solely on what’s coming from the federal government. It could also be more effective if information comes from local voices.

The other thing colleges and universities should do is reach out to the local health authorities to ask, how can we help, what are your needs? The local health authorities are overburdened right now so we shouldn’t inundate them with questions, but now’s the time for colleges and universities to reach out and be good citizens.

EAB: What permanent changes do you anticipate on the other side of this virus, after it dissipates? How will this change campus?

KFF (Josh): Having been in public health for decades now I can say there’s pretty much no chance of permanent change. Even though we’re in the midst of this crisis now, based on past experience, everyone will fall right back into bad habits. We’ll not place a priority on this as soon as the wave passes. If we do suddenly start funding prevention measures to prepare it will mark a sudden departure.

KFF (Jen): I’ll add that, I agree with Josh, this is the pattern we’ve seen over decades and it could continue. But then again, I’m not aware of any of those prior outbreaks that have touched everybody. We have people in Congress self-quarantining. Seattle, which is a city that is on the cutting edge of everything, is suddenly sidelined. It’s unprecedented and it could lead to change. It will hopefully mean there will be real preparedness plans, real models. What we need is to start capturing what’s working this time so that the next time an epidemic hits, it’s automatic. Right now it’s almost like a blank slate.

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