In an effort to provide students, faculty and staff with effective communication from university representatives and to assist with any problems that may arise in quarantine, OU has partnered with the Athens City-County Health Department and the state of Ohio to bring this liaison program to life, according to OU’s website. Those liaisons are described by OU as “experienced care professionals.”
Liaisons provide non-clinical case management to students, faculty and staff affected by the pandemic and explore ways to make sure students staying in isolation, either at OU or at home, are taken care of, Jivanto Van Hemert, director of case management and COVID response operations, said. Presently, there are 11 full-time liaisons and 20 liaisons who work on a “strike team” when they are needed.
In a perfect world, this program would benefit all students, allowing them to feel comfortable in their isolation experiences and possibly expediting those experiences. Yet, problems within the program have left some students feeling left out even when others are fully taken care of.
Autumn Whiteman, a freshman studying Spanish education, said she enjoyed how often she communicated with her specific liaison. After being exposed to COVID-19 by her friend, she chose to travel home and spend the duration of her quarantine there.
“I would say (the communication) was really good in my experience because my friend reached out to me and said to be prepared for (my liaison) to reach out to me in a couple days from when she had to go into quarantine, and then they called me less than an hour later, ready to tell me that I had been exposed and wanting to hop on trying to minimize the spread,” Whiteman said. “They contacted me really quickly, and it was pretty seamless.”
While some students were contacted by a liaison almost immediately after their exposure, others had to wait several days to receive assistance.
Alexia Plevris, a freshman studying fashion merchandising, is one such student. She chose to quarantine in OU’s designated isolation dorms after coming into contact with someone who later tested positive for the virus.
“I never ended up getting a liaison, probably until my fifth or sixth day, and the only reason I got a liaison was because I was harassing (COVID Operations), constantly calling COVID hotlines, calling all these different people,” Plevris said. “I was never updated. No one ever texted me. I didn't know when I was going to get out … It was a mess, honestly.”
“I never ended up getting a liaison, probably until my fifth or sixth day, and the only reason I got a liaison was because I was harassing (COVID operations)”—Alexia Plevris, a freshman studying fashion merchandising
Anna Delgarbino, a freshman studying business, was exposed to someone who tested positive and was told she had to isolate. A day later, though, she was cleared to resume all campus activities.
Amid all the confusion Delgarbino experienced, she said she found it difficult to get in contact with her liaison to find out what was going on. After speaking to COVID Operations and then Ohio Health, Delgarbino finally got in contact with her liaison, who helped explain the situation to her.
“I felt like our COVID liaison was really busy and didn't really have the time to get in contact with us,” Delgarbino said.
Apart from how students feel about their specific COVID campus liaison, the liaisons themselves have been innovating their work to make sure that they can assist as many students as possible.
“I think, generally, it can be hard to reach students, faculty and staff just because everyone's busy, (and) people have classes. We use many different methods of outreach: phone, text, emails, more phone calls, attempts at different phone calls,” Alyssa Toshimitsu, a COVID campus liaison, said. “We understand the busyness of everyone's schedule and work-life balance, so we try our best, and we definitely try to make our presence known and that we're trying to make that communication.”
Van Hemert highlighted the changes the COVID campus liaison team has made to ensure that students, faculty and staff are reached.
“One of the things that we did as we shifted into this work that is more timely is we expanded our (business) hours,” Van Hemert said. “Our office is now open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m Monday through Friday and also noon to 5 (p.m.) Saturday and Sunday to help give some additional options for folks that perhaps that traditional business hours is not the best time to communicate with them.”
Despite the efforts of the liaison team, it understands the frustration and stress students feel during their contact tracing experience can ultimately vilify the liaison in the student’s mind.
“Nobody likes COVID. It has ruined something in pretty much all of our lives, and so there is a lot of frustration and emotion wrapped up in all of this,” Van Hemert said. “At the point that we start talking to someone, their life has already been adversely impacted, and so I want to acknowledge there's lots of challenges that come with that as folks are navigating through our process. Some are undeniably related to our process, but some of them have nothing to do with us.”
“Nobody likes COVID. It has ruined something in pretty much all of our lives, and so there is a lot of frustration and emotion wrapped up in all of this. At the point that we start talking to someone, their life has already been adversely impacted, and so I want to acknowledge there's lots of challenges that come with that as folks are navigating through our process. Some are undeniably related to our process, but some of them have nothing to do with us.”—Jivanto Van Hemert, director of case management and COVID response operations
Toshimitsu said she enjoys talking to those who are affected by COVID-19, even with the added obstacle of their possible frustration.
“We understand that we're not always the most loved people on campus because we are delivering news of ‘you were exposed’ or ‘you have to remain off campus; you can't go to class,’ (and) there's a lot of pieces that we're not delivering the best news,” Toshimitsu said. “But I think all of us take that time to get to know each person individually … There's still this kind of bond that I get to create with each person (when) they come through this process.”
In the eyes of some students, especially those who felt excluded from the process of talking to their liaison, the COVID campus liaison program has room for improvement.
Specifically, Delgarbino would like to see a change in how COVID-19 contact tracing cases are communicated by the liaisons, even though she understands the difficulty in dealing with something so new.
“It's obviously something that no one's really had to deal with before, so I understand it being difficult and hard,” she said. “I think just being prepared and having the resources to answer us or even letting more people know what's going on so that other people can help us would be something they could improve upon.”