A Flood of Information
Staff led on testing, tracing and public service
by Sherri Kimmel
In the nearly five decades that Cindy Bilger has worked at Bucknell, she’s seen the devastation the ’72 flood wrought in the Lewisburg community and on campus, where some student housing was submerged. She’s worked through massive changes in systems used for data collecting and reporting and even helped prepare for the 2009 swine flu pandemic, which was not as severe as predicted. But she’s never seen anything like COVID-19. As director of benefits, she added to her HR skillset by developing a massive employee testing program.

“Dana Mims [Events Management], Jeff Loss [Facilities] and Steve Barilar [Public Safety] all stepped up to support this,” she says. In a matter of days, “We were able to have a tent set up, tables and a refrigerator — a whole remote testing site.”

Employees were divided into four groups based on contact with the campus community, with all working on campus tested at least once and as frequently as every two weeks for high-contact workers, including faculty.

As the semester settled in, Bucknell’s testing provider, Genetworx, set up shop in a section of Sojka Pavilion, Monday through Friday, to enable faster processing. “People understand the purpose of testing and want to be tested. I’ve been very impressed with our faculty and staff, and our students are following the rules,” Bilger says.

That also extends to laying down those rules. One of the most perplexing challenges relating to reopening was how to ensure rapid contact tracing.

“In what felt like the 11th hour of our plan to go live, we had every expectation that the state Department of Health would pick up contact tracing as their obligation during a pandemic,” says Pierre Joanis, vice president for human resources. “We had instances where we were not contacted by the state about positive cases and at least one instance when the state contacted us well over 30 days later and said a visitor to campus tested positive and for us to quarantine folks for 14 days after the contact. We scratched our heads and said, ‘Wait a minute. If it happened 30 days ago, doesn’t that make this phone call moot?’ ”

To Joanis, the only recourse was for Bucknell to “stand up” its own contacttracing program — training staff to call students and employees who tested positive and then learn the names of those with whom they had close contact.

Joanis put Tom Mayernik, HR’s training and organizational development manager, in charge. As of October, Mayernik had trained and deployed 27 staff contact tracers.

One of those stepping up was Julie Rowe, operations manager for Global & Off-campus Education. Not only did she break the news to those who tested positive, but she contacted others who had been in close contact with a positive case to provide instructions for a two-week quarantine. She also checked on quarantined students daily.

“They found comfort, having a constant contact, especially those students who were having a hard time emotionally adjusting to quarantine in the first few days,” she says. “I encouraged them to hang in there, and every day we did a countdown. It’s been really rewarding to be a support for them. I was incredibly impressed with their responsibility and maturity.”

People talking on the phone illustration
While most positive individuals had only four or five close contacts, Rowe says one student had 19. “When I first got assigned the case, it took me about eight hours to work it,” she says. “That was in addition to my regular work.” After that, she enlisted colleagues to help with follow-ups.

Doug Birdsong, manager of radio/TV and marketing for Athletics, also pitched in when another contact tracer had to call 18 close contacts. Contact tracing goes well beyond inquiring about health status, he says.

“We’re asking some specific questions, but we can also lend an ear to hear other concerns,” he says. These ranged from picking up laundry to preparing meals for students with allergies. “I’ve spoken to a lot of colleges around the region, and I don’t know of any other school that has done what we have done at Bucknell,” Birdsong says. “I think we’ve gone above and beyond.”

Bucknell’s employees also have gone the extra mile to enhance public transparency, whether that meant staffing a COVID hotline or developing a dashboard on the University website that displays the number of positive and active cases.

Lori Barth is one of 11 administrative assistants who answer calls and emails rolling into the Bucknell University COVID Information Line. “We always have a primary person who answers the phone and then a backup so no two lines are ringing at the same time,” says Barth, who supports the general counsel and vice president for finance & administration. Callers “might be a parent whose child has been quarantined or a student who says, ‘My roommate has tested positive, so now what should I do?’

“We keep a log so we all know who we’ve talked to, what kind of questions they’ve asked and what action was taken,” Barth explains.

Shana Ebright, in the Communications division, helps manage the program, which processed 55 calls during the first five weeks of the semester. Calls usually last about five minutes but could last 30 minutes or more, especially when reassuring concerned parents. In those cases Ebright turned to Beth Gritzer in University Advancement, who coordinated regular check-ins with the Bucknell Parents Board to maintain ongoing support.

Gritzer, who regretted being unable to assist in other ways due to an immunocompromised condition, was gratified to have a tangible role. “Anything I can do to help keep this university moving forward through this pandemic is something I’m happy to do,” she says.

Also key to serving the public’s need to know was a COVID dashboard that Ken Flerlage and the Library & Information Technology data analytics team developed with the help of many campus partners. It displays the numbers of tests done, positive cases and students in isolation housing.

Updated daily, the dashboard was “viewed 150,000 times [in its first five weeks], which says to me that there is a hunger for this from staff, faculty and students but also outside the University, whether it’s parents or the local community,” Flerlage says. “The service offers transparency and visibility on exactly what’s going on. That is really important and also reveals the sheer amount of testing that we’re doing.”