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Keeping Panthers safe, informed this fall

Keeping Panthers safe, informed this fall

Contact tracing, P3 app and a recently published web page featuring data on self-disclosed COVID-19 cases are all strategies to reduce the spread of the virus among the Panther community

September 2, 2020 at 9:00am

With fall classes starting and in-person course options resuming on FIU campuses, the university is doubling down on strategies for its Panthers Protecting Panthers initiative. Here’s what you need to know to do your part and help keep Panthers safe.

One of the university’s major safety measures revolves around the COVID-19 Response Team. This group of public health professionals was hired by FIU specifically to help mitigate the risk of exposure on FIU campuses and sites through contact tracing.

The team of trained epidemiologists receives information daily from the FIU P3 app – an app that contains a questionnaire that screens for COVID-19 symptoms, following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines. All students, faculty and staff are required to complete the questionnaire within the app each time they come to campus; on-campus residents are required to complete the questionnaire every morning.

Depending on the answers to the questions, the app either gives the user permission to come on campus or recommends they stay home, monitor symptoms or seek medical attention.

The COVID-19 Response Team follows up with people who do not get the go-ahead to come to campus, and provides guidance and support for next steps they should consider; the team also supports other Panthers who self-disclose that they have tested positive for the virus. As part of its contact tracing program, the team reaches out to Panthers who may have been exposed to the virus on campus or through another Panther. The team also works with the Facilities Department to clean and disinfect any affected areas.

FIU’s contact tracing effort is an added layer of protection for the Panther community, says Vice Provost for Health and Wellbeing Dr. Yolangel Hernandez Suarez, who oversees the COVID-19 Response Team.

The Florida Department of Health, she explains, conducts its own contact tracing, in which it will reach out to folks who might have been exposed to the virus. But the department might not necessarily ask an infected person about every building or every part of FIU they may have visited.

That’s where the response team comes in—to conduct contact tracing specifically within the FIU community.

“By hiring the COVID-19 Response Team, FIU has gone the extra mile to decrease risk for our Panther community,” Hernandez Suarez says.

Self-reported COVID-19 cases web page

Recently, the university published a web page that reports weekly data about self-disclosed COVID-19 cases within the FIU community.

The page provides case numbers for students living or learning on campus; students learning remotely; faculty and staff working on campus; and faculty and staff working remotely. The web page acts as a report—an update—to keep Panthers informed, Hernandez Suarez says.

“It’s one of our tools,” she explains. “The purpose of all our strategies is to decrease the spread of the virus in our place of learning and work.”

Tracking these cases is one of the ways that FIU is monitoring the campus environment and assessing whether current safety measures are effectively reducing the transmission of the virus.

The web page observes privacy laws as stated in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). With these privacy laws in mind, the web page (like other FIU safety measures) relies on the personal responsibility of each Panther and his or her willingness to share helpful information about their diagnosis. So far, every Panther has been willing to help.

"We are really pleased with how our FIU family has responded to calls from the COVID-19 Response Team," Hernandez Suarez says. 

Campus spaces and educational awareness

In addition to re-organizing and reimagining classrooms and other campus areas to establish clear social distancing protocols, the university has unleashed a massive education campaign raising awareness about basic public health measures. There are currently more than 30,000 signs on campus that remind people to wash their hands, wear their mask and maintain six feet apart.

Outdoor benches sporting “limit one person” stickers; protocols calling for only four people per elevator ride; vending machines that sell face masks and hand sanitizer dispensers around campus are just a few of the changes.

FIU also developed a COVID-19/Panthers Protecting Panthers online training for students, faculty and staff. Through this training, Panthers learned about COVID-19, transmission of the virus, FIU protocols and public health measures to reduce the spread of the virus.  

Panthers are already doing their part to keep FIU safe: 27,996 students as well as 7,106 faculty and staff have completed the Panthers Protecting Panthers course. And more than 5,600 Panthers have used the P3 app to complete the safety screening questionnaire before arriving on campus. 

To promote greater understanding and compliance with the university’s public health guidelines, FIU trained its first group of student ambassadors for the Panthers Protecting Panthers initiative this week. Their job is to walk MMC and BBC and encourage compliance with the program.

If someone is found on campus not wearing a mask, an ambassador will provide them a free one. And if students are not adhering to physical distancing guidelines, then a fellow student will be there to explain why close contact is dangerous during a pandemic. 

Expert guidance

To shape its initiatives, the university is intently listening to CDC guidelines as well as the world-class medical and public health experts who teach at FIU, says Hernandez Suarez. Among the leading Panther voices within the FIU – and local— communities are Mary Jo Trepka, professor and Chair of Epidemiology, and Dr. Aileen Marty, professor of Infectious Diseases and Travel Medicine.

Hernandez Suarez says it's imperative to listen to experts like these and to keep updated with the latest information about the virus.

“What we know of the virus is changing daily,” she says. “We are living it right now, and we’re still learning about it. What we as a university are doing may change to protect us as we learn more. That’s part of the process.”

One last piece of advice from Hernandez Suarez: “Everyone should be an ambassador for the basic public health measures and the other measures we’re implementing.”

That’s how Panthers can best protect Panthers.

If you are COVID-19 positive or have questions, contact the COVID-19 Response Team at 305-348-1919.