UA System Prepping For COVID-19

Mar 8, 2020

The statewide University system has been preparing for COVID-19 and is ready to change routines should the virus emerge in Alaska. As of Sunday afternoon, state health authorities report testing 23 people since January and have found no confirmed cases here. The UA campuses are prepared to adjust if that should change.

The prepping has gone pretty deep, considering there are no students, faculty or staff in the system who have reported exposure to COVID-19. University President Jim Johnsen says UA officials have formed an Incident Management Team.

“And that includes the Chancellors and their advisors in academic affairs, in administration, in facilities, and most importantly, in student affairs.”

The team met last Monday with state epidemiologist Dr. Joe McLaughlin, who shared the latest information about the new coronavirus and COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus. The Team has written up procedures for the university dealing with widespread disease.

If a student, staff or faculty member gets sick, they will be required to self-quarantine for 14 days. That sounds good on paper but what about students who live in the dorms?

“If we end up with students who have contracted the disease on our campuses, we have already begun the planning of setting aside dormitory space. So they would be able to be quarantined on campus. We’d provide health service to them and also food service, and to extent possible via online or other communications, we’d make accommodations for their academic programs. So that planning is in process right now.”

In fact, there are several planning websites now for the UA system and each campus addressing disease scenarios. University of Alaska Fairbanks has posted its academic and business continuity plan which covers emergencies for the main Troth Yeddha’ campus in Fairbanks or rural UAF campuses in Dillingham, Kotzebue, Bethel and Nome. It is a work in progress, changing as new ideas come in. (The current draft academic continuity plan is available here. )

Those includes changing face-to-face classes to online ones as much as possible, which means the technology staff may need to be increased. It could mean moving classes to other buildings or extending the course schedule. If laboratory buildings needed to be closed, it could mean moving those classes to evenings at local high schools with science labs.

If all this seem like overkill because there are no cases on campuses, that might change after Spring Break which starts today. Johnsen says the idea is to run through extreme scenarios now, so there can be less worry later.

“That’s one of the great things about having really, really smart, prepared people. I’ve had a couple of conversations with the governor about our preparedness, here for this likely disease coming to us.”

UAF is the system’s primary research campus, and it’s the home of the International Arctic Research Center, with a huge component of Japanese scientists. The Centers for Disease Control has given Japan a Level 2 Travel Health Notice. Johnsen says there has been no disruption yet.

“We’re being very careful, and I know we are in close consultation with the Japanese consulate, and we are very clear about how to deal with this issue. And we are still getting the work done.”

On Friday, UAF Chancellor Dan White wrote to students and staff – quote “At UAF we are taking precautions against COVID-19 but we don’t want to be governed by it.” He encouraged people to make sure that no one is being singled out because of their ethnicity or nationality. He asked, “Please continue our commitment to respect, diversity, inclusion and caring.”