RBHS Faculty, Staff, and Students:
It has been just over ten weeks since March 11, 2020, the date that the World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic, when the uncontrolled spread of a simple organism comprised of proteins and just over 30,000 base pairs of RNA impacted the health, economic security, and living conditions on a global scale. Our experiences these past months have been a powerful demonstration of the importance of our health care infrastructure to the collective well-being of society and the centrality of our academic health center as a critical resource for the research innovation, health professional education and training, and direct patient care that will guide us through this crisis. For RBHS, this spring semester has presented challenges for all of our faculty, staff, and students.
Although we have much work ahead of us, we can be very proud of all that we have accomplished together. Notably, we honor the heroism of our front line health care workers who have cared for our patients across our wide spectrum of clinical sites. Through our combined efforts, we have provided life-saving care to our communities, mobilized our researchers to develop tests and treatments to combat COVID-19, kept the public well-informed with accurate guidance and helpful resources, adapted and delivered coursework and training online, kept our facilities and critical missions running, sourced equipment and supplies from every possible corner, and so much more.
We are now entering a new phase of the COVID-19 response which is in many ways more challenging than this initial mitigation phase. The solutions our governments applied to slow the spread of the virus are essentially the same basic tools of epidemiology we have used for centuries: shutting down sectors of our society, social distancing, and contact tracing. While economically costly, these tools have proven effective in New Jersey and elsewhere to “flatten the curve.” With the slowing spread of COVID-19, decreased the rate of hospitalizations, and reduced mortality rate, we can now initiate recovery efforts, plan to incrementally repopulate our campuses, and continue with our academic programs, including those required clinical and in-person trainings that cannot be done remotely or online.
On the research front, many of you have been heavily involved with COVID-19 related clinical and fundamental research efforts while the majority continue to work remotely, or onsite in a limited fashion because of the ramp-down of wet laboratory research that was needed. Currently, RBHS is working closely with ORED on planning a university-wide research ramp-up effort, and you will be hearing shortly about a wet laboratory return-to-work RBHS study that provides an opportunity for a staged return of those of you whose research involves bench work. In addition, the Rutgers-wide Center for COVID-19 Response and Pandemic Preparedness (CCRP2) is expected to announce its biomedical research pilot awardees within two weeks, and applications for the social sciences research pilot applications are being reviewed.
In terms of education, moving forward into the summer and fall, we will continue to provide a hybrid educational program combining online didactic courses with limited on-campus teaching for those classes which must be conducted in-person, whether clinical experiences, laboratory experiences, hands on simulations, etc. Under the direction of the Senior Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Research, the deans of each of the eight RBHS schools will be leading this. The solutions will inevitably vary by school, and over time, as we continue to respond successfully to the changing nature of this pandemic, and to changes in requirements for accreditation and professional licensure.
While many details need to be worked out and individual school, discipline, and program-based solutions developed, to inform this process we will follow five guiding principles across RBHS:
- First and foremost, the safety of our students, faculty, and staff is our paramount concern. In-person clinical interactions, labs, and simulations will be conducted using personal protective equipment, appropriate social distancing, with as few students on site as possible. While a risk of infection in a health care training environment cannot be eliminated 100%, we will make every effort to limit exposure to, and spread of, the SARS-CoV-2. Should in-person education ever become too great a risk to the health of our personnel and students, we will not hesitate to postpone activities until such time as they can be conducted safely and securely.
- Second, we will develop and follow a regime of testing utilizing the technology developed by our Rutgers University – New Brunswick colleagues at RUCDR-Infinite Biologics to ensure that students, faculty, and staff have timely information about their ongoing health status and can continue their education safely. When necessary, they will be informed by health care professionals to appropriately isolate or quarantine themselves then return to campus when it is safe to do so.
- Third, contact tracing will be deployed to identify and inform those individuals with potential exposures to persons testing positive for SARS-CoV-2 and to surveil, assess, and evaluate on an ongoing basis the level and rate of infection across our campus population. This will of course be coordinated with the state and local health departments, with whom we are collaborating closely.
- Fourth, each school will be adapting the implementation of in-person education to meet the didactic needs of its students and accreditation requirements. Our schools will have the flexibility to best serve their own students in this hybrid educational environment while providing for a timely completion of course requirements needed for graduation and licensure as expeditiously as possible, mindful of our commitment to the safety of our RBHS community.
- Fifth, we are committed to resolving the inevitable challenges inherent in repopulating our campuses with evidence-based best practices informed by the most current scientific research, much of which is being conducted by our colleagues across RBHS and Rutgers University. As a community of scholars, researchers, and professionals we will endeavor not only to provide as optimal an educational experience to our students as possible, but advance our understanding of SARS-CoV-2 as a pathogen, our public health crisis responses, the impact this pandemic is making on health disparities and our host communities, and a tireless commitment to find effective treatments, therapies, and ultimately a vaccine.
We will continue to communicate our full implementation plan for the upcoming academic year as we finalize the necessary infrastructure to support in-person education including sanitization, testing, tracing, evaluation, and assessment. While RBHS faces unique challenges to repopulating our campuses, never has the successful fulfilment of our mission as an academic health center been more urgent. We will meet these challenges together as we meet every challenge as health care professionals and researchers - with resilience, patience, courage, heart, compassion, and an abiding commitment to the health and wellbeing of our patients and communities.
Thank you for your extraordinary efforts in fulfilling our mission in this unprecedented time in our history as a higher education and health care institution.
Brian L. Strom, MD, MPH