Friday, August 14, 2020

HSU Moves to Re-open After Health Officer Warns it is Unsafe; Students Set to Arrive on Campus Tomorrow

Posted By on Fri, Aug 14, 2020 at 7:13 PM

click to enlarge Humboldt State University - FILE
  • Humboldt State University - FILE
Asked about Humboldt State University’s plans to return students to on-campus housing beginning this weekend, moving toward a limited re-opening of in-person instruction Sept. 8, county Health Officer Teresa Frankovich seemed to strike a diplomatic tone during an unscheduled media availability this afternoon.

“Obviously, HSU is a really integral part of our community and we really benefit from having the university here and its student population,” she said. “That being said, of course, we have been concerned locally about our epidemiology in terms of our increasing case rates and some of the clusters of cases we have seen. We also have concerns about our testing capacity … We do have concerns. I’ve discussed those concerns with Humboldt State University. They are planning to move forward and so we plan to basically support them in whatever way we can … We’ll be partners through this COVID season as we are with many entities in our community.”

What Frankovich didn’t say during the availability but was revealed in a series of emails released in response to a Journal request under the California Public Records Act, is that HSU is proceeding with its plans despite Frankovich’s firm objections and urgings for the university to wait until October to welcome students back to campus, when she hopes Public Health will have increased testing capacity locally.

"As I review our epidemiological data and look at our testing capacity as well as case investigation teams, I believe we have moved to a place where on-site instruction cannot be accomplished safely at this moment in time," she wrote.

While details of HSU’s plans have proven difficult to come by and possibly in some flux, the university expects to welcome “just under 800” students — about a third of the usual tally — to on-campus housing in staggered waves between now and the Aug. 24 start of online instruction, HSU Emergency Management Coordinator Cris Koczera told the Journal in an interview this afternoon. The students will be housed in single-occupancy rooms and asked to quarantine for 14 days, with the university arranging to provide them with a variety of services, from meal deliveries to “virtual programs to interact socially,” Koczera said.

The students — coming to campus from communities throughout the state — will not be closely monitored while in quarantine with “someone watching their doors,” Koczera said, but will have all pledged to adhere to a “social responsibility commitment” they agreed to when deciding to come to campus for the semester. Closer enforcement of the quarantine plan, she said, falls into a “really gray area of what you can and can’t do.” Outside guests — including parents and friends — will be strictly prohibited, she said.

The students will be tested for COVID-19 upon entering on-campus housing, Koczera said, but she declined to answer follow up questions about whether there would be follow-up testing in the ensuing days, saying details were still being finalized.

“This has been a very big lift, both for us and Public Health,” she said.

It’s also a lift that correspondences indicate Frankovich tried to stave off, feeling it was unsafe given current community conditions, only to have Humboldt State University President Tom Jackson Jr. brush off her concerns as “perplexing” obstructionism based on “prejudicial” assumptions and the failings of county Public Health to adequately prepare for HSU’s plans.

click to enlarge Humboldt State's Founders Hall. - FILE
  • FILE
  • Humboldt State's Founders Hall.
The push to get students back on campus for the fall semester comes as HSU continues to wrestle with a large projected budget deficit. Already facing a shortfall of more than $5 million due to a years-long trend of declining enrollment, HSU announced in April that number was projected to balloon to $20 million over the next two years due to further enrollment declines expected because of the COVID-19 pandemic. (The Aug. 24 start of remote instruction at HSU, to be followed Sept. 8 with limited in-person classes, also approaches amid growing discord over recent changes at the University Center, which manages a variety of student services. Read more about that in Ryan Burns’ extensive story for the Lost Coast Outpost here.)

While communications between Public Health and HSU had apparently been ongoing for months, it seems things came to a head after an Aug. 11 email from Frankovich to Jackson, sent after the county had confirmed 60 new COVID-19 cases and three hospitalizations in just nine days.

In the email, Frankovich made plain that local COVID-19 conditions were deteriorating to a point where she feels it is currently unsafe for the university to begin on-campus instruction or bring students into campus housing. She pointed to California Department of Public Health guidelines for institutes of higher learning, stating that in-person instruction should be contingent on local epidemiological trends — namely that caseloads and hospitalizations have been decreasing over the past 14 days, quoting directly from the section. “At this time,” she wrote, “we are not able to meet these pre-conditions.”

click to enlarge Humboldt County Health Officer Teresa Frankovich. - SCREENSHOT
  • Screenshot
  • Humboldt County Health Officer Teresa Frankovich.
“We have now had 72 cases in the past two weeks, 48 in the past week,” she wrote. “Our 14-day case rate per 100,000 went from about 28 one month ago to 50 as of (Aug. 10). We are detecting more community transmission cases and 42 percent of our cases are [in people] under 30 years [old].”

And local conditions are further worsened by local testing issues, she wrote, noting that the OptumServe testing site at Redwood Acres has been plagued by slow turnaround times and the Public Health Laboratory’s capacity remains limited. She said plans are in place to significantly increase capacity in October “if all goes according to plan,” but not before. Until Public Health can test more samples locally, she wrote, capacity “would clearly fall short in meeting demand for a large surge occurring in context of a return to students to dorms and on-site learning at HSU.”

“Robust testing with fast turnaround is essential to manage cases on campus that will inevitably occur and are very likely to occur quickly as we bring students from across the state to the area, many of whom are coming from places where disease circulation is vastly higher than ours,” Frankovich said of HSU, which recruits heavily from Southern California counties that have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic and remain on the governor’s watch list. “There will be positive students walking onto campus without question and congregate housing will increase transmission risk enormously.”

The last factor Frankovich notes as cause for concern is Public Health’s capacity to the conduct contact tracing investigations that health officials believe are essential to limiting the spread of the virus by quickly identifying and isolating those who have been exposed. The recent surge in cases locally has stretched capacity, she wrote, adding that hiring and training new investigators is a “time-intensive” task.

“While we are managing our current caseload well, we are positioned such that a large number of cases occurring in a short time frame, such as a return to campus, would be a potential tipping point for overwhelming the system, risking wider spread of the virus,” she wrote.”

Frankovich closed the email by saying she is “sorry that local conditions make moving forward as planned this impractical at present” and noting that she understands the “enormous impact” pushing students’ return to campus housing and in-person instruction into October would have.

Jackson responded the following day, saying he found it “unfortunate” Frankovich’s “perspective has shifted,” and that he regretted her “not waiting and speaking to me first before writing a long email.”

click to enlarge Humboldt State University President Tom Jackson Jr. - COURTESY OF HSU
  • Courtesy of HSU
  • Humboldt State University President Tom Jackson Jr.
“I now must respond to you in greater detail in writing,” Jackson wrote. “… Your perspective is noted. I am also providing a link to the governor’s guidelines in case you are not familiar with them. As we proceed as we have consistently and carefully planned, we will continue to update you on additional measures we will be taking given Public Health’s limitations.”

Frankovich replies the following morning, thanking Jackson for his response and noting that she’d tried to arrange a phone conversation prior to sending her email. But with “an issue of this magnitude,” Frankovich wrote she felt it appropriate to bring her concerns directly to Jackson rather than his staff. She then got to the substance of the issue.

“The governor’s guidance was actually quoted in my email, so yes, am definitely aware,” she wrote. “The issues are not Public Health’s issues, they are our community’s issues and being faced by communities across the state. That is why we have been transparent in discussions all along that the COVID landscape could change and necessitate a shift to virtual learning only. It is the same discussion we have had with K-12 schools for months as well. I would be happy to talk about options and sincerely feel that a delayed start date could serve everyone well. I look forward to speaking with you.”

Jackson responded the following day, expressing shock. His response both seems to ignore Frankovich’s explanation that her urging HSU to postpone bringing students back to campus was in direct response to changing conditions in Humboldt County, characterizing it as a “sudden shift in position despite the fact that your team has been working with HSU on our plans for fall semester since June.”

“I am disappointed and our confidence has been shaken in your department’s ability to meet this challenge as our partner,” he wrote. “We are moving forward with our plan to welcome a very limited number of students into our residence halls according to the Governor’s and CSU guidelines and current public health protocols. If you have any further plans to use your authority to obstruct this plan (in spite of supporting it earlier), we must be informed immediately.”

Jackson went on to explain that pushing back or altering HSU’s plans would create hardships for students, before expressing dismay at Frankovich’s take that there was added risk for the community in HSU’s plans.

“It also seems perplexing that you are suggesting we should deny housing to students, who are also county residents, who will reside in Humboldt permanently when 150 hotels, 87 groceries, 34 gyms and studios, 145 barbers and hair salons, and 125 restaurants in the county are currently open and accepting guests from all over the country,” he wrote. (For the record, restaurants are still prohibited from providing indoor dine-in service.) “Thousands of tourists have been welcomed into our county given that travel restriction has remained lifted all summer.”

He goes on to call Frankovich’s statements about added risk brought by students from out of the area “prejudicial,” saying it is “irresponsible to assume” they are a “threat.” Frankovich’s focus on HSU students “is inequitable and perplexing,” he wrote.

Jackson then seemed to intone that Frankovich’s concerns about HSU’s re-opening amid a surge in local infections that has now seen 69 cases confirmed so far this month had more to do with Public Health’s shortcomings than epidemiological conditions beyond its control.

“I can appreciate your concerns regarding your office’s inability to potentially meet a substantially worse outbreak,” he wrote. “… It was our expectation that Public Health would have anticipated these limitations within your area well before now and adjusted service delivery in preparation for and support of the implementation of our plan. We welcome conversations with you about what else we can do to help you and your department address any resource or capacity shortcomings within your department.”

Jackson wrote that HSU has “one of the best operational plans for a higher education institute in the state” and charges that Frankovich’s position “seems based on several projected assumptions” about HSU students.

“If I close housing based on these assumptions, I need to consider the impact of triple digit layoffs, hundreds of students possibly stopping their education, loss of healthcare insurance, collective bargaining agreements and potentially millions of dollars lost to the region,” Jackson wrote. “HSU also houses some people that may have housing insecurities, low income or are coming from abusive environments. I doubt you are suggesting we put these people on the street. We also house many persons of color. Again, I do not think you are suggesting we put these individuals out onto the street or suggest they should not progress toward a degree in the community, but your position will lead us there.”

While Jackson repeatedly asserts HSU’s plans conform with the California Department of Public Health’s guidelines, whether that's the case seems in dispute.

"Implementation of this guidance as part of a phased reopening will depend on local conditions including epidemiologic trends (such as new COVID-19 case and hospitalization rates consistently stable or decreasing over at least 14 days), availability of (institutes of higher education) and community testing resources, and adequate IHE preparedness and public health capacity to respond to case and outbreak investigations," the guidelines state. "All decisions about following this guidance should be made in collaboration with local public health officials and other authorities."

Moving forward, all indications are that HSU is proceeding as planned and Frankovich and Public Health are working to help the university do that as safely as possible.

HSU spokesperson Aileen Yoo told the Journal current plans call for 224 students to arrive on campus tomorrow, with 170 more coming Monday and 387 more showing up between Aug. 18 and Aug. 23. While all students will be housed in single-occupancy rooms, some will have shared bathrooms, which Frankovich intoned could complicate quarantine periods and necessitate some students isolating for longer than 14 days, presumably if they begin isolation only to later share space with a more recent arrival.

Yoo also told the Journal she was working to answer follow-up questions about who would be carrying out the swab testing of students and where those samples would be processed, but that information had not arrived by the time this story published. We’ll update when we receive it.

During the media availability, Frankovich reiterated that one concern is local testing capacity, noting that the OptumServe site has been plagued by turnaround times of a week or more, rendering it fairly useless for surveillance testing of people coming into congregate living situations. The Public Health Laboratory, meanwhile, can turn around results in as little as 24 hours but has a limited capacity and can only process about 120 tests a day, though Frankovich said the hope is that number will bump to 300 as soon as next week when new equipment comes on line.

Koczera also noted that the university has set aside 162 rooms with attached bathrooms that it can use to isolate any students housed in rooms with shared lavatories who happen to test positive for the virus.

“We’ve worked really hard to make sure everything we’re doing is meeting all the state guidelines, but in most cases we’re going pretty far above them, recognizing that being in Humboldt County, we’re a little different,” Koczera said.

Frankovich was also asked during her media availability about HSU students who may be returning to off-campus housing in Humboldt County in the coming days. Just like anyone else returning from essential travel outside the local area, Frankovich said they will be expected to quarantine for 14 days to make sure they are symptom free and not unwittingly spreading the virus. When they do leave their homes, they will expected to wear facial coverings, per her public health order.

“Students will be welcome members of our community when they arrive,” Frankovich said.

At 6:17 this evening, HSU posted a letter sent to students expected to live on campus this year notifying them for the first time that they will be required to take a COVID-19 test before entering student housing.

"We recognize that this new testing requirement was not explicitly described in our recent correspondence regarding your HSU Social Responsibility Commitment," the letter states. "Nevertheless, under the current circumstances, testing will be required for all on-campus residents upon their arrival to campus. Additional measures may be warranted throughout the term depending on how the pandemic evolves."

View the California Department of Public Health's guidelines for colleges and university re-openings here, and find HSU's posted readiness plans here. Find the full correspondence between Frankovich and Jackson here.
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Thadeus Greenson

Thadeus Greenson is the news editor of the North Coast Journal.

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