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Feb. 3, 2021 LA GRANDE, Ore. – When Eastern Oregon University students returned to the La Grande campus in January, most of them already knew what to expect.
The small, rural campus was one of few to offer a significant number of in-person classes and services during the COVID-19 pandemic. Students’ compliance with health and safety protocols allowed the university to keep case counts at a minimum while continuing operations.
Prior to the start of Winter Term, EOU proactively tested all on-campus students for COVID-19. Students living in on-campus residence halls tested once during Winter Break, and a second time upon returning to campus. Student-athletes complete regular COVID-19 tests to continue participation in practices.
EOU conducted over 1,200 tests in the first month of Winter Term, and just 2% have come back positive.
Director of EOU’s Student Health Center Heather Wiggins, DNP, is also a Family Nurse Practitioner and OHSU faculty. She said large-scale testing provides important information to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
“At least 40% of the spread of COVID is through asymptomatic or presymptomatic individuals, who either are already ill and do not have any symptoms or have not yet developed symptoms,” Wiggins said. “Frequent large-scale testing is one measure that can help reduce the risk of an outbreak spreading quickly… This type of testing is especially important when students are returning to campus from many different areas after Winter Break, and may have been unknowingly exposed, or are already infectious but are not showing any symptoms.”
Carrie Brogoitti, COVID-19 Incident Commander at Union County’s public health authority CHD, Inc., said the organization has a longstanding, positive relationship with EOU that has helped mitigate the spread of COVID-19 locally.
“Of all the places in our community where there could be risk of spread or potential outbreaks, EOU has done a tremendous job of being proactive,” Brogoitti said. “They have great plans in place and have been swift to act in isolating and quarantining COVID-19 cases to limit or stop the spread in our community. They have really taken it seriously and have worked really hard to limit the risk to their students and the community.”
She said EOU has helped inform and coordinate many aspects of the pandemic response, and that the university’s presence in La Grande is not a primary reason for the county’s “Extreme Risk” status.
“Over the last year we have seen COVID-19 activity and outbreaks touch almost every area of our community. In many of these instances, to the best of our knowledge, this activity has been community spread,” Brogoitti said. “EOU has coordinated their testing events with public health and these testing events have led to identification of cases, quick treatment, and immediate isolation to prevent spread.”
EOU’s systems proved sufficient when a minor outbreak was quickly contained in mid-January. After testing negative, students began experiencing symptoms and a cluster of interconnected cases was detected. Contact tracing found that no employees or shared spaces were exposed, and each affected student was assigned a caseworker to provide wrap-around services. A newly hired COVID Response Nurse has also provided direct care and consultation for EOU students.
“EOU has a COVID case management team of very dedicated individuals. They are committed to ensuring students have the type of support they need when dealing with a COVID illness or exposure,” Wiggins said. “This team consists of many representatives from Student Affairs, Residence Life, the Student Health Center, the COVID response nurse, and the Athletic Department. This team meets routinely to help provide support to all students who are in isolation or quarantine.”
Academic support is an integral part of the university’s response. Faculty have provided remote-access resources for students since the pandemic began last spring. Adapting in-class curriculum to suit remote and hybrid courses also allows students to self-isolate or quarantine if they’re ill or potentially exposed to the virus.
Face covering requirements, physical distancing measures and daily health checks also contributed to the university’s ongoing capacity to offer in-person instruction. Free COVID-19 tests are available to students experiencing COVID-19 symptoms or who have been in contact with a positive case.
“Additional safeguards that are in place for the rest of the term are the same measures that have been in place all year,” Wiggins said. “This includes always wearing masks in the presence of other people, both indoors and outdoors. Additionally, EOU limits the number of people in indoor areas to observe physical distancing and follows enhanced cleaning measures throughout campus.”
Learn more about EOU’s response to COVID-19 and get updates on current case counts at eou.edu/coronavirus.
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