saliva testing tubes

Timeline: Resolve, ingenuity define UofSC pandemic response

Nimble response team enables university to navigate COVID-19

It’s been a little more than a year and a half since the arrival of COVID-19, and the University of South Carolina has weathered the crisis thus far with resolve, ingenuity and a set of guiding principles for every pandemic-related decision.

Declaring victory against a virus that has stricken well over 200 million people worldwide would be premature. But with vaccination rates inching upward and cases on the decline, it is an auspicious time to reflect on the university’s ongoing efforts to deal with the pandemic while fulfilling its primary mission of education and research.

The university has weathered other crises in recent years, such as the thousand-year flood in 2015 that left the campus (and much of the city) without potable water. Hurricanes and ice storms have on occasion knocked out power. But the frightening unknowns that accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic challenged the university’s abilities to respond in myriad ways. What emerged was a response team that has continually developed workable solutions as it navigates the landscape of a pandemic.

“We’ve got a confidence that comes from the strength of every sector of the university working together, moving very quickly as a team inclusively and transparently,” says Jack Claypoole, the university’s executive director for strategic initiatives and facilitator of the Future Planning Group, which has devised and executed the institution’s COVID-19 response.

“We have lived by the core value that nothing is more important than our people. And it’s been our people — faculty, staff and students — who have all had a hand in getting us through this.”

An abridged timeline of the university’s COVID-19 response underscores the institution’s timely decision-making and leadership as the pandemic has unfolded.

February-March 2020

  • The university’s Emergency Management Team mobilizes Feb. 17, and an expanded COVID-19 Task Force activates March 3.
  • The university warns students of the emerging threat of COVID-19 in advance of the March 8-15 spring break. The first two cases of COVID-19 are confirmed in the Palmetto State on March 9 and the first COVID-linked death is reported one week later.
  • The university announces a plan on March 11 to pivot to virtual instruction one week after spring break. Non-essential employees begin working remotely on March 16.
  • The Office of the Provost and University Technology Services launch rapid faculty training and deploy resources for the switch to remote learning on March 23. Upgrades to the university’s online infrastructure completed just months before the pandemic hit are put to the test as the instructional modality shifts completely.
  • On March 25, a School of Medicine Greenville team led by Dean Marjorie Jenkins, collaborating with the College of Engineering and Computing, announces emergency FDA approval for a splitter device to expand the capacity of ventilators for seriously ill COVID patients.
  • University Libraries creates an online guide to digital resources for parents with school-aged children now learning from home.

Spring-summer 2020

  • The university creates the Future Planning Group as its pandemic task force, with eight subgroups from across the university, including public health/medical; admissions/enrollment; academics and research; finance; risk management/public health safety; communications; athletics; and return to campus planning.
  • The FPG establishes four ‘enduring priorities’ to govern all decisions: health, safety and welfare of the campus community; limit and mitigate the spread of the virus and protect our community; maintain academic and research excellence; and sustain the university through and beyond the crisis.
  • The FPG grows to include broad representation  — from students to trustees. Key staff members of the FPG include Sandra Kelly, vice provost and dean of undergraduate studies; Stacey Bradley, senior associate vice president for Student Affairs and Academic Support; Mandy Kibler, University controller; Jeff Tallant, CFO for athletics; Lee Pearson, associate dean for operations and accreditation, Arnold School of Public Health; and Deborah Beck, former executive director of Student Health Services (now University Health Services) and Healthy Carolina.
  • As COVID-19 numbers fluctuate across the country and around the world, the FPG devises a blueprint for students’ safe return to campus in fall 2020, with provisions such as masking, routine testing and quarantine facilities. A series of virtual town hall meetings with then-President Caslen and key members of the FPG provide a steady update of the university’s COVID planning to faculty, staff, students and parents throughout the summer.
  • The university joins forces with the City of Columbia to launch “I Pledge Columbia,” a personal responsibility campaign to encourage mask wearing, social distancing and other personal efforts to mitigate spread of the virus.
  • Predictive modeling becomes the core of the university's tactical approach, led by assistant professor Melissa Nolan and the COVID Modeling Projections Team in the Arnold School of Public Health.
  • College of Pharmacy scientists, including Phil Buckhaults, Carolyn Banister and Michael Shtutman, collaborate with School of Medicine Columbia infectious disease clinical professor Helmut Albrecht and researchers at Yale University and MIT to develop a rapid saliva-based COVID-19 surveillance test. The test is officially announced in August, and the testing technology is shared with other state colleges and becomes the cornerstone of the university’s COVID-19 testing protocol. Nephron Pharmaceuticals, owned and led by alumni Lou and Bill Kennedy, donates an advanced liquid-handling robot to the university's COVID-19 testing lab to improve efficiency.
  • Arnold School of Public Health professor Sean Norman works with the Centers for Disease Control to validate efficacy of his field technology for wastewater surveillance testing for COVID-19. The technology is affirmed and deployed at several sites across the country and becomes an important tool for monitoring community COVID status in the university’s residence halls.

Fall 2020

  • The university welcomes students back to campus with a modified fall schedule that maximizes in-person classes while eliminating fall break and a return to campus after Thanksgiving.
  • Enrollment on the Columbia campus declines slightly in comparison to pre-pandemic fall 2019 figures. Nationally, most colleges and universities experience moderate to severe declines in enrollment and revenue, shedding 650,000 faculty and staff positions as a whole.
  • University establishes a campus alert level system and twice-weekly updates to its COVID-19 public dashboard to keep campus and greater Columbia communities informed and aware of COVID-19’s impact on the university.

Spring 2021

  • Gamecock Park and Colonial Life Arena become mass COVID-19 vaccine deployment sites. More classes return to in-person instruction.

Summer 2021

  • The university’s COVID mitigation plans for fall 2021 semester are adjusted as the Delta virus variant brings a new surge in cases to South Carolina and other states with low overall vaccination rates.
  • University launches the Garnet & Vaxxed peer influence campaign within the campus community to encourage vaccination, mask wearing and other COVID-mitigation efforts.

Fall 2021

  • With three-fourths of faculty members and two-thirds of staff members and students vaccinated for COVID-19, mandatory testing of the Columbia campus community consistently reveals a low (<1 percent) positivity rate. Campus operates on New Normal, the lowest level of its campus alert system for COVID risk mitigation.

In addition to the challenging work and difficult decisions that have gone into keeping campus safe, there have also been complex contingency plans developed for worst-case scenarios that, fortunately, did not materialize.

“We actually had a variety of plans laid out about what to do if we had a mass outbreak that overwhelmed the health center, how we would move into parking decks and alternate structures and so forth,” says Rebecca Caldwell, assistant vice president of administration and well-being. “There was a lot of scenario planning going on behind the scenes that were things that we never used. We just had to stay nimble and committed to figuring things out.”

Even a comprehensive timeline doesn’t acknowledge the scores of long days and exhausting hours put in by university staff members over the course of the pandemic thus far. From facilities personnel who clean buildings and mark classroom seats for social distancing to foodservices staff who prepare and delivered food to quarantined students to technology services teams who cruise the campus to ensure Wi-Fi bandwidth is adequate for Teams sessions, the number of behind-the-scenes actions is nearly endless. 

“There was amazing teamwork across the university that made the return to campus possible,” says Sandra Kelly, vice provost and dean of undergraduate studies at South Carolina.  “There’s not a single division at this university that did not rise to the occasion. Everyone — students, faculty, staff, administration — should be proud of what we accomplished. It was a hard time, it was a wearing time, but we did it.”

Caldwell adds: “There's been just such a deep commitment on the part of the campus partners to make this work. So that's been a joy to be in a room with a lot of folks who are like, ‘OK, we're going to make this happen.’ While other folks might have thrown up their hands, folks at this university just dug in and figured out how to make it work.”

Share this Story! Let friends in your social network know what you are reading about