Eric Green talks to health care professionals at the University of Akron’s vaccination clinic. (Photo: Amy Morona)

What it’s like to be a university’s point person on pandemic logistics

For many years, Eric Green’s family vacations kicked off a routine.

Arrive at the hotel, jump in the elevator, go to the room, turn around, leave again. Back in the hallway, he’d instruct his daughter and son, young at that time, to look for the stairwells. They needed to know where the emergency exits were located before the fun began.

After all, he said, it’s good to have a plan. You never know when you’ll need it.

That still rings true for Green, 50, today. In fact, it’s part of his job. He’s chair of the University of Akron’s COVID-19 planning group as well as the director of environmental and occupational health and safety. He has worked at UA for about 16 years.

Green is an important part of the puzzle for a university, like its peers across Northeast Ohio and the country, that’s continuing to figure out life during the pandemic and oft-changing guidance. Many aspects of the university’s boots-on-the-ground COVID response receive Green’s input. His mom at one point even helped put together some masks.

While the light at the end of the tunnel is getting brighter, parameters still surround institutions’ decisions. The impact of even just one move potentially can have a reverberating effect.

Take the recent pause of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. UA stopped the student clinics it was running on campus in light of the concerns over blood clots. The shot was being delivered there as well as at other colleges across Ohio as a way to help students get vaccinated before leaving for the summer.

The clinic rolled out in less than a week in April, was halted quickly when the recommendations surfaced, and resumed later that month once the pause was lifted. Each of those phases brought along more things to figure out. Yet just getting the event off of the ground felt like a turning point.

“Most of our other efforts were about safety and managing life and reducing things,” Green said. “This was about gaining a step towards normalcy.”

He spent the first morning of the clinic’s second stint working out of a makeshift office in the on-campus arena. A two-way radio on his belt periodically buzzed as a colleague checked the sprinkler system, giving a small reminder of duties more routine in pre-pandemic life.

Even the mask Green wore that morning represented a cumulation of decisions. Navy blue, three-ply, picked because it washed well and paid for by some of the university’s federal relief funding.

Vaccine distributions weren’t the toughest challenge, though. Green said he and his colleagues had hit their stride by then. Things were more challenging earlier on in the pandemic as they figured out how to handle students in isolation and quarantine housing.

The logistics were dizzying. Lamps needed to be bought to brighten up dark rooms. The process of laundering linens needed to be figured out. Three meals needed to be distributed per day. It was a lot.

“How do you completely, from start to finish, take care of that group that are now really in your charge?” he said.

The university had planned for this situation. Well, kind of. Officials have held several exercises to prepare themselves for different scenarios. The most recent one in the summer of 2019 depicted a pseudo-measles outbreak.

Early on, Green’s colleague Mark Beers dusted off the pandemic playbook they used in 2009 with the H1N1 virus. It served as the baseline of the group’s evolving COVID response.

But he couldn’t have forecasted all of the times he’d don a gown and other protective equipment to transport students either infected by or exposed to the virus to that isolation housing. He estimated he’s done that several hundred times. Those aren’t the kinds of tasks typically outlined in a job description.

“It mentally affected me, this COVID,” said Beers, the university’s emergency management coordinator. “I mean, every day, in and out. It wears on you.”

Beers pointed out there were eight people in his department when he joined more than 20 years ago. Now it’s down to five. The university eliminated 178 employees last summer. Ten people who worked in facilities were cut, according to the Akron Beacon Journal.

It takes working cohesively at a university to make the institution run smoothly during normal times. That’s amplified now. Staffers from across departments continue to work together on several pandemic-focused groups, in addition to their normal, day-to-day duties.

Green recruited Alison Doehring, head of the student advocacy and support office ZipAssist, to help answer students and families’ questions during a call center last spring. Now she’s also leading some communications efforts.

“We all recognize (that) we are intricately together,” Doehring said. “How a classroom is set up affects our scheduling, which affects our number of faculty, which affects course offerings, which affects communication, which affects health and wellness. It’s all churning together at the same time.”

The churn will soon shift again. The clinic is winding down, as is the spring semester. Graduation is the next big event. Each ceremony is outdoors. Graduates are limited to four tickets, and those guests will sit in distant pods. Green said those instructions remain firm even as other guidance may change.

“Once you put a plan in place a month ahead of your event, to react, to make it bigger or make it more relaxed with two weeks out isn’t practical,” he said.

Looking ahead, contingency planning and mitigating risk will remain important. Green suspects discussing masks and vaccines will continue to be a part of campus life, including as officials figure out how to bring more people to campus safely over the summer for events like new student orientations and athletics camps. There are still a lot of unknowns.

As for Green, he’s looking forward to some trips with his wife later this summer. Even those, too, still have logistics to consider.

“It’s what can I do that won’t get canceled?” he said.

They settled on a trip to Virginia to kayak and bike, along with a visit to see his wife’s family.

Amy Morona covers higher education for Crain’s Cleveland Business, in partnership with Open Campus.

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