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The clinical staff members currently at the forefront of Cornell Health’s fight against the spread of coronavirus urge community members to stay home.

Cornell Health ready to combat coronavirus

“The warriors” is how Dr. Anne Jones ’04 describes the 15 clinical staff members currently at the forefront of Cornell Health’s fight against the spread of coronavirus.

As of March 24, Cornell Health – which provides care for more than 80% of Cornell’s undergraduate, graduate and professional students each year – has moved to “pandemic operations,” based on the global public health landscape and recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“We have significantly shifted our operations,” said Jones, Cornell Health’s director of medical services, “and we want people to know how to access our services in this new model.”

Members of Cornell Health’s pandemic operations team dress in personal protective equipment when seeing patients with COVID-19 symptoms. Left to right, they are Jamie Warner, licensed practical nurse; Dr. Jada Hamilton, assistant medical director; Kara Timmins, certified physician assistant; Penny Lamphier, licensed practical nurse; and Dr. Ed Koppel, assistant medical director.

At present, only the small, highly trained medical team is seeing patients in person; they are focused on screening patients with symptoms related to COVID-19. The team, fully dressed in personal protective equipment, tests students by appointment only a few hours each day.

“At this time, when the broad message to the community is, ‘Stay home, don’t go out,’ they are answering the call to duty and coming to work,” said Jones. “They are doing what is best for each individual patient and for the community at this time.”

The first day with new protocols went smoothly. “We had prepared and prepared and prepared,” she said, “and it paid off.”

The other 90% of Cornell Health’s more than 220 staffers are supporting patients and clients remotely, including staff in Counseling and Psychological Services, Student Disabilities Services, and Occupational Medicine. All students requesting medical and mental health services are now screened by phone; there are no walk-in services.

The pandemic operations approach achieves several goals, all related to preventing the spread of coronavirus and taking care of students, said Sharon McMullen, assistant vice president of student and campus life for health and well-being. For one, it reduces the risk of patients contracting COVID-19 at Cornell Health.

“A health care facility is the last place you want to be if you’re trying to avoid sick people,” McMullen said.

The pandemic approach also protects front-line staff and the Ithaca community from unnecessary exposure to coronavirus, she said. “We feel a great responsibility to make sure that the local health system, including the local hospital and urgent care centers, is not being overtaxed,” McMullen said.

Other pandemic measures include greatly restricting in-person visits, especially to the COVID-19 testing area, and requiring those who believe they have COVID-19 symptoms to get a phone screening before seeking care. People who aren’t well enough to make it to the building will be referred to the appropriate local health care providers.

Although these are difficult times, “every time I seek out feedback about how students are reacting to these measures, the word that I hear is ‘grateful,’” Jones said.

Cornell Health has been preparing for pandemic operations since mid-January, when news of the global coronavirus outbreak began to ring alarm bells. Since then, Cornell Health has been planning, based on recommendations from state and federal public health agencies. The latest guidance from the CDC advises outpatient facilities like Cornell Health to delay all non-urgent ambulatory care for in-person care, screen all patients by phone prior to engaging in visits, and prioritize testing for COVID-19 for individuals who meet criteria and while testing supplies are available.

Their preparations shifted into high gear the week of March 16. That was just after Cornell President Martha E. Pollack announced the university would begin virtual instruction on April 6 – and when the CDC and New York state broadened guidelines for who should get tested.

That drove more traffic to Cornell Health. Just as students needed copies of their health records or to pick up a prescription before going home, more patients started coming in with respiratory issues. Flexing services to meet that demand “set us up well to move smoothly into this new operational status,” Jones said.

The facility continues to see patients with respiratory illness who meet criteria for testing – even though there are fewer people on campus. “Absolute numbers don’t tell the whole story right now, because the student population has decreased so much,” McMullen said.

Cornell Health has also seen an uptick in students who have been emotionally impacted by the upheaval.

“There are students who really didn’t want to leave campus,” McMullen said. “There have been adjustment issues that counselors have helped our students with, for sure.”

Other students, McMullen said, have acknowledged that they can each do their part to protect the most vulnerable around us. “That has been really gratifying,” she said.

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Abby Butler