Return-to-workplace efforts required unprecedented teamwork

In early May, UF was already looking ahead to lay the groundwork for fall semester when it undertook its return-to-workplace efforts. Gathering the resources needed to send 26,000 faculty and staff through screening and recommended testing in just under two months, providing them with PPE and preparing our facilities for more employees to be back on campus seemed daunting at the time, to say the least.

And yet, through the efforts and hard work of many UF and UF Health employees, it happened. To date, 28,191 employees have been referred for screening. Of these, 23,562, or 91%, have been cleared to have access to the UF workplace. Nearly 20,000 UF faculty and staff have completed testing through UF Health Screen, Test & Protect.

The effort has required extensive collaboration and teamwork on the part of a number of units, beginning with the establishment of an on-site testing center at the Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. Meghan Nodurft-Froman, M.P.H., of the Emerging Pathogens Institute, and Matt Walser, P.A., of the Student Health Care Center, were among the first to realize the extent of what was required when they were called upon to join forces to operationalize a plan.

“It was just a fantastic team that came together,” said Nodurft-Froman. “We were told on a Monday or Tuesday this would happen, and we made it come together by the following Wednesday.”

On the basis of the success of testing efforts the Emerging Pathogens Institute held at locations including The Villages®, Cedar Key, Jacksonville and P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School, UF Health introduced Screen, Test & Protect, a data-driven public health endeavor designed to help quickly identify and isolate positive cases of the coronavirus that will inevitably emerge as time passes.

“We are not waiting for COVID-19 to disappear or for a cure or vaccine,” President Kent Fuchs wrote in his Alligator column in early June. “We have decided that we must learn to live, study and work in the midst of COVID-19.”

UF Health Screen, Test & Protect cannot entirely eliminate the risk of contracting COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. But UF Health leaders explained that adherence to physical distancing guidelines, hand-washing and the wearing of masks or cloth face coverings when in public areas can help minimize exposure.

In addition, because of UF’s relationship with the local county health department, an infrastructure is in place that enables UF to work with the Florida Department of Health and uniquely utilize individuals trained in epidemiology and contact tracing. A group of more than 20 disease investigators led by Jerne Shapiro, M.P.H., lead epidemiologist for UF Health Screen, Test & Protect, conducts contact tracing, directs individuals to isolate or quarantine and performs other public health activities under the authority and supervision of the director of the Alachua County Health Department.

The Screen, Test & Protect team is notified of cases in several ways, including various testing initiatives, through self-reporting from call-ins and by cross-matching the Department of Health information with UF Health Screen, Test & Protect information. Cooperation with the Florida Department of Health on the part of anyone who may become a case or contact is key to ensuring a safer UF community, Shapiro has explained.

All of these activities enhance the ability to identify and properly respond to new cases.

“When you contact trace and quarantine people effectively, you really cut the legs out from under the epidemic,” said Michael Lauzardo, M.D., an infectious disease specialist who is deputy director of the UF Emerging Pathogens Institute and director of UF Health Screen, Test & Protect.

UF Health COVID TestingTo support their efforts on the UF campus, Facilities Services, Transportation and Parking Services and the University Police Department were brought in to provide needed infrastructure while UFIT and UF Health Shands IT worked together in partnership with UF Human Resources to build an online system in which people could get screened and schedule testing efficiently. Phillips Center staff generously opened their doors for a whole new version of behind-the-scenes operations, and representatives from the College of Pharmacy joined in to host a call center.

“I’ve been at UF for 25 years, and I don’t think I can name a time when I’ve seen so many people from so many areas of campus work so efficiently and willingly together,” said Walser. “It was just a huge effort for what we were talking about doing, and I never heard anyone who said, ‘I don’t think we can do it that way.’”

You might have (understandably) missed such efforts while sitting in your car waiting for someone to carefully stick a long swab up your left nostril. You might not have noticed, for example, the huge exhaust fans, air conditioning units, box fans and carbon monoxide detectors set up to ensure staff could work as safely and comfortably as possible. Or that Wi-Fi was now available in the garage. Or all of the Gatorade the University Athletic Association had donated, or the walkie-talkies the O’Connell Center provided. Or the Polar Life Pod immersion tank set up next to the ice machine in case anyone working in full PPE in the garage got overheated.

And the list goes on.

All of these efforts have resulted in a testing center that is now a model for the rest of the state of Florida and is now prepared to test as many as 1,500 students a day as they return for the start of the fall semester. UF Health pop-up testing sites also have been created around the state to include places such as Lake Nona, Hialeah, Naples and Jacksonville, enabling testing of UF employees in and around those counties.

Supplementing the screening and testing efforts, UF Procurement Services staff have acquired more than 1.4 million disposable masks and 55,500 cloth masks, with Central Stores helping to distribute just more than 50% of inventory to date. Planning is also underway to make additional face coverings and COVID-related supplies, such as disinfectant spray and facility signage, widely available to the campus community prior to the start of the fall term. The university has purchased nearly 5,000 gallons of hand sanitizer and distributed approximately 45% of these throughout the university.

“We knew we were undertaking a massive effort when we set out to do this, but we also knew we needed to act quickly if we were going to make it happen,” said Senior Vice President and COO Charlie Lane. “Fortunately, it turns out UF is the very place to pull off such an effort, thanks to our world-class physicians and epidemiologists as well as the outstanding work of the many teams who support our university’s operations.”

Watch for more information about the ongoing distribution of supplies in an upcoming issue of UF at Work.