Building a COVID-19 Lab (3/n)

The “I swear, I am not trying to kill you edition.”

So that shopping post I promised last time? Yeah, life intervened. I had to get back to teaching the class that originally led to this blog fall semester and help put out the fires that kept popping up with the testing project all semester! Anyways, let’s get back to it. 

I want to take a look back at one of the more controversial parts of this project: communication. Communicating with a large, interdisciplinary team is always difficult. Much trickier is communicating with a large, interdisciplinary community of stakeholders.

We have an incredibly diverse university community. We have students who just graduated from high school who were showing up on our campus in their first foray into independent living, and we have faculty who have served the institution for decades. There are teachers who were facing the prospect of standing in front of large lecture classes, and facilities workers dealing with all matter of new protocols and work changes to most safely deal with the pandemic. 

My role was straightforward, to design and build a COVID testing facility on our campus. That work was done, and was running smoothly as the first students moved onto campus in early August. Our rates of positivity have been low (more on that in a future post), and the university launched a student led campaign to get students on board with the new protocols. Contact tracing was in effect, and the cases we identified in incoming students had been isolated. 

Sharing information with the community was part of my objective all along. I spoke to a number of local and national media outlets and continued to field questions to my email box every day.

I gave presentations to students, parents, faculty, and staff over zoom. A side effect of all of this one on one science communication is that I became, for a short time, the public face of an effort that was not welcomed by everyone on campus. Many believed that attempting to go back to residential learning was misguided, that it was too dangerous. Still others pointed out how going back to campus would impact our surrounding neighbors. Inequality of risk was a major concern. 

I shared many of these concerns. The pandemic had become far worse in the United States than I thought it would be. Leadership at the federal level was virtually nonexistent. At best, the federal government abdicated its responsibility, at worst, it spread false information that made people more anxious and upset and resulted in more illness and death than we would have seen had we had a coordinated effort from the top down from the start. I do hope better days are ahead of us in that respect. 

Given the year of no federal leadership, I decided that if I could help increase the testing in my state, I was going to lend my expertise to that effort. But, after I thought we were off to a good start, a lot of people started getting really snarky on Twitter.

Some of the comments were thoughtful. Some expressed real fears. I tried at first to answer them to the best of my ability. Answering questions about science is my job after all. But then a subset of folks came after me in ways that felt personal. And I started to get defensive. I swear, this widespread testing effort is not an evil plan to kill you or your students! After a couple of weeks of engagement, my husband quietly suggested that perhaps Twitter was not a good use of my time or that great for my mental health. And I took a step back. However, I think it is worth looking back at the main arguments from that time, because they are still important today. 

There were two conflicting arguments being made by my colleagues online. The first held that no matter what we do in terms of testng, tracing, and mask wearing enforcements, that undergraduates will never comply and we will all get sick in the end. The second argument warned against the university “blaming undergraduates” for failures resulting from the administration’s choice to bring students back to campus. We focused on the undergraduates because they were the largest group of people coming to campus from other places. Almost all of these other places had higher COVID-19 positivity rates than we had, so it was justified to keep our eyes closely on this group. 

Interestingly, in the end, neither of these things came to be. Nearly everyone, undergraduate to faculty, complied with protocols, and spread of the virus in the fall semester was much lower than in the surrounding communities. Ongoing analysis by my colleagues is forthcoming that will put numbers to this assertion. I also think that the overall communication coming from the university administration has greatly improved over the past 6 months as we have hit our stride. We start spring semester with similar fears and higher community numbers almost everywhere in the USA. We will continue to look at the on campus numbers daily, enforce testing compliance, and strive to keep our community safe.

For me, I have learned to use the block feature on Twitter. However, I have also opened new avenues of conversation via email and direct message with several colleagues who definitely disagree with our approach, but who also value ideas and reasoned arguments. These have been very rewarding interactions. I am still learning from this project, and will continue to be open to your comments and suggestions. I continue to remind myself that everyone is scared, and most are acting in good faith.

Author: Catherine Klapperich

Find me on Twitter @DrKlapperich

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