University Park, local communities and others partner in fight against COVID-19

March 19, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — As the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) situation continues to change daily, many may wonder if the actions being taken by various organizations and groups are coordinated. Questions about preparedness of not just Penn State, but the community and the region, naturally are being asked. 

“We are all in constant communication, mostly behind the scenes, to maintain situational awareness and planning within our community and our region,” said Shawn Kauffman, Centre Region emergency management coordinator. “Emergency managers, health care professionals, experienced community partners, as well as the school district and University officials are all exchanging information and the identification of resources as part of our efforts to support our communities.”  

Kauffman, who helps coordinate planning and response activities across six municipalities in the region surrounding Penn State’s University Park campus, is just one of the 58 members of the Infectious Hazards Planning Group (IHPG) that has been meeting regularly since 2007 to discuss preparedness and response to a wide variety of issues, such as avian influenza, H1N1, Ebola and now COVID-19.

The IHPG consists of individuals from Penn State and the community, including representatives from local emergency management teams, the school district, government, health professionals, local hospital and other community members who have been sharing weekly updates on the current pandemic and response efforts across the spectrum. 

Several partners in the fight to mitigate the impact of the novel coronavirus in the region are health care professionals at Penn State Health, Mount Nittany Health and Penn State’s student health care facility (University Health Services) — all with representation on the IHPG.  

“We’ve had numerous conversations with doctors, infectious disease experts, lab directors and more from professionals in our region and have discussed specifically evaluation and treatment of student patients who are under investigation for COVID-19, and the protocols of transferring patients who may need to be hospitalized with the virus,” said Dr. Robin Oliver-Veronesi, senior director for UHS. “We have a great relationship with our colleagues at Mount Nittany and we are working to support them so that they can continue assisting the entire community.” 

Oliver-Veronesi said one significant way that UHS is supporting community health efforts is by evaluating students on campus, thereby reducing the number of people who visit the Mount Nittany Health emergency room. Penn State has converted its ambulance bays at the rear of the health services building into a triage unit where both on-campus and off-campus students who feel ill or are displaying possible symptoms can go to be evaluated and potentially tested for COVID-19. At University Park, all students with medical concerns must call first to schedule an appointment at 814-863-0774. 

Mount Nittany Health’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Nirmal Joshi, said that he and his colleagues at the medical center have “prepared and practiced for many years with our community and state partners.” 

“We are using that expertise to navigate this situation on behalf of our community. The health, safety and well-being of our patients and communities have always been our top priorities at Mount Nittany Health,” said Dr. Joshi. “We rigorously follow the guidance from the CDC and PA Department of Health for screening and testing of patients for COVID-19; all with a focus on patients, staff and community.” 

Carrie Hanley, Mount Nittany Health Infection Prevention and Control manager, recommends the following steps to assess your own health and safety: “If you have a fever and cough or shortness of breath, please call your doctor to discuss what may be the appropriate next steps.” 

“As the situation continues to evolve, we have taken steps to prepare and protect our community, including limiting visitors in our facilities at Mount Nittany Health, except for special circumstances and rescheduling elective and nonessential services and screenings for after April 30,” said Hanley. “We continue to evaluate and will announce further measures as needed with the focus on our community’s health and well-being.”    

At Penn State Health in the Centre Region, many of its physicians are also on staff at the Mount Nittany Medical Center and would likely admit patients to that facility, officials said.  

“If patients do have symptoms they should call their doctor rather than going directly to their physician’s office or to their hospital emergency department. Their physician can assess their symptoms remotely and determine the most appropriate path to further care,” said Dr. Peter Dillon, chief clinical officer at Penn State Health. “We are actively coordinating with the clinical leadership of all health systems in the region and will coordinate transfers to the appropriate facility as the situation requires.” 

Just like Mount Nittany Health and Penn State Health, the University Health Services will report any cases to the Pennsylvania Department of Health immediately and if there is a case of COVID-19 discovered in Centre County, it is the Department of Health that would make the public announcement. 

All medical facilities in the area are attempting to conserve, when they can, the use of personal protective equipment, like gloves and gowns, and are seeking to obtain as much medical equipment and supplies as possible from suppliers, knowing that at some point there could be a surge in infected individuals. Sharing resources may be necessary, according to Oliver-Veronesi. 

Brian Bittner, Penn State’s emergency manager, agreed and said that navigating the immediate challenges created by this worldwide pandemic is best done together.  

“The University is working closely with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, which has declared a state of emergency. This allows additional resources and supplies to be deployed to our communities. We are following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and others, who are asking all of us to do our part in slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus,” Bittner said.  

Under Bittner’s direction, Penn State has the ability to open an Emergency Operations Center (EOC) that will serve as the region’s information, planning and response hub if the pandemic accelerates. The EOC can be activated “in-person” with few individuals within the facility, or the EOC can be virtual if the knowledge of more individuals is needed to inform community actions. To date, Bittner and his staff have been monitoring activities and maintaining situational awareness through regular teleconferences. Bittner and Kauffman are monitoring local police, fire and EMS resources and assisting agencies with personal protective equipment needs. 

Kauffman added that State College borough has become the dedicated repository for compiling information in the Centre Region related to the novel coronavirus and COVID-19. Information and updates about State College Area School District, Penn State, Mount Nittany Health and other organizations can be found at http://www.statecollegepa.us/coronavirus.  

To go directly to Penn State’s actions to address this unprecedented health crisis, visit https://psu.edu/virusinfo.

“This situation is really going to take a village, as they say, and the current national strategy of social distancing — known as “flattening the curve” — is critically important,” Kauffman said. “We all have a role to play and I, for one, am grateful for the partnerships we have forged within our community that can make this happen for the health and safety of everyone.”  

Last Updated March 24, 2020