University of Arkansas health center prepares for students to return from COVID-19 hotspots

KNWA

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (KNWA/KFTA) — The University of Arkansas released its “Return to Campus” plan last month, meaning students from COVID-19 hotspots across the country will make the trek back to Fayetteville. Representatives from the university’s campus healthcare center said they are doing what they can to tackle this looming problem.

Across the country, several states are experiencing significant a significant spike in coronavirus cases. In its Wednesday update, the often-cited New York Times map and case count showed sharp upward trends in Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Nevada, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas. University of Arkansas data shows students from those states will return to campus in for the Fall 2020 semester.

Students from Arizona, Florida and Texas made up nearly 1/4 of the UA student body in 2019, according to statistics posted by the university’s enrollment website. (Credit: University of Arkansas)

Molly Hollingsworth is from Coppell, Texas, and she plans to finish her fourth and final year at the University of Arkansas when she moves back in August. She said she saw firsthand how the “Lone Star State” tightened its restrictions for a second time after positive cases began to swell.

“I have a part-time job, and it’s like in [the] downtown Grapevine area,” Hollingsworth said. “That’s kind of hectic now, because they’re making business owners, employees…they’re making us wear masks 24/7. We can’t take it off.”

Hollingsworth said she’s concerned about out-of-state students returning for two reasons: many are coming from heavily-impacted states like her own, and Northwest Arkansas’ nightlife culture is conducive to COVID-19 spread. In the state, Washington and Benton Counties have consistently accounted for most of the new coronavirus cases after taking the mantle from Pulaski County in Central Arkansas.

“Honestly, I’m a little concerned just because one of the biggest parts of Fayetteville is Dickson Street, Hollingsworth said. “I bet you once everyone gets back to campus, that’s probably going to be one of the hotspots that students are going to go to on the weekend, maybe even during the weekdays.”

Hollingsworth said she and her friends looked forward to a night out, but the COVID-19 outbreak may keep them away even though bars reopened in Arkansas.

The university’s reopening plan includes guidelines influenced and written by Pat Walker Health Center representatives. Pat Walker is the UofA’s on-campus healthcare center for students, and workers will perform their duties alongside the Arkansas Department of Health to conduct extensive contact tracing and administer tests, said Mary Alice Serafini, the center’s executive director.

“We’ve been working on this since March, since we all went remote,” Serafini said. “Besides the medical care that we’re providing, the screening and the testing, we are participating in all the education that we want to get out—making sure that our students, parents, faculty, staff all get as much information as they can about the situation that we are in.”

After the plan was released, the university announced it will require students to wear masks in situations where they cannot social distance. The plan itself documents ways in which the campus community will handle positive cases, quarantines, safety inside classrooms, dining halls and dual-learning platforms via digital mechanisms.

As the state pushes for an increased focus on contact tracing, the Pat Walker Health Center intends to put aspiring healthcare professionals to good use, Serafini said, giving them an opportunity to make a tangible difference as the community prepares for what could be a, “dangerous situation.”

“We have some programs where students need clinical experiences,” Serafini said. “The school of nursing has students who need a certain number of hours in clinical experience, so they would be our first priority to earn their academic credit towards their degree. That’s the whole point of being at the University of Arkansas.”

The UofA doesn’t know what the demand will be as the fall progresses, Serafini said, so the Pat Walker Center will train students in other programs to be ready in case more tracing is needed.

“At this point, we don’t have that structured, so we are pleased that we can address some of these academic needs first and that we can work closely with the Arkansas Department of Health,” Serafini said.

The Pat Walker Center offers COVID-19 testing, but widespread, robust testing for students and faculty is an impossibility, Serafini said.

“Nationally, we’re going to hit a brick wall when it comes to testing, and we’re no different,” Serafini said. “One of our reference labs said they can no longer service us because of lack of supplies.”

Mary Alice Serafini said the UofA will not be able to provide consistent repeated testing, an idea touted by some universities despite a widespread prediction that testing will wane in coming months without major advances.

Zac Brown is the Pat Walker Center’s Assistant Director for Communications, and he said much of the university’s ability to succeed in keeping campus-goers and their families safe will be in how individually responsible students and faculty are. Students’ tendency to congregate on and off campus is reason for concern a little more than a month out, Brown said.

“For students, it’s going to be really important to understand that the actions that they take can have larger consequences,” Brown said. “We really want to make sure that they are doing everything right and that they understand if they’re going to be in a group of people that they are practicing these guidances and protocols.”

In a statement sent by John Thomas, Manager of University Communications, the UofA reiterated its intention to stick by the plan released in June despite the Northwest Arkansas COVID-19 spike and worse examples in other states like Texas:

“The guidelines that are part of the Return to Campus plan haven’t changed and aren’t expected to change prior to the start of the semester, and those guidelines apply to all students regardless of where they are coming from hometown-wise.”

Governor Asa Hutchinson (R) said Wednesday he continues to support universities’ plans to reopen for in-person classes, adding that he predicts there will be positive cases in campus settings.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) said the state legislature worked to secure funds intended to pay for COVID-19 testing in higher education.

Hutchinson said campus communities will need to work with state agencies and “deal with” any cases that arise.

“As students come in from Texas or other states, we expect them to be tested if they’re symptomatic,” Hutchinson said. “Whenever you get in the environment there, there’s going to be positive cases, and we just have to deal with it, work through it and provide the health to the students that we can.”

After spending last semester unexpectedly taking online classes, Hollingsworth said she’d rather return to in-class learning rather than undergo the same process again in a couple months. So, she said students should find ways to comfortably adhere to scientifically-recommended guidelines, like wearing masks and social distancing.

“Getting an actual assistance from a teacher in person instead of just emailing them or something, that also, I think, benefits [students] better,” Hollingsworth said.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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