Our university has responded appropriately to the coronavirus

John Parsons, Columnist

Texas A&M University-Commerce has been proactive in reducing the spread of COVID-19, a novel coronavirus defined as a new strain that has not been previously identified in humans, according to the World Health Organization, by taking measures that reduce the spread of the virus.

The coronavirus first appeared in late 2019 in Wuhan, China.

Dr. John Hellerstedt, commissioner of Texas Department of State Health Services, declared a public health disaster in Texas when because COVID-19 “created an immediate threat, poses a high risk of death to a large number of people, and creates a substantial risk of public exposure because of the disease’s method of transmission and evidence that there is community spread in Texas.”

As of April 3, Texas laboratories had conducted 63,751 tests for the coronavirus. There have been 6,110 cases reported with 105 deaths and 151 of the state’s 254 counties reporting cases according to the DSHS website. Hunt county has seen eight people test positive for the coronavirus.

A&M-Commerce received notice of and announced its first positive case March 28 involving an 18- to 30-year-old woman who lives off-campus in Commerce. She was also the first case for Commerce.

“The student has not been on campus recently and is following all medical professional recommendations for self-isolation,” the university announced in an email sent to students.

Official university announcements are available at https://new.tamuc.edu/coronavirus/.

“The health and safety of our students, faculty and staff are our top priorities. We are doing everything we can to stay updated and keep our university protected. We encourage you to remain informed and use precaution when traveling,” according to the website.

“The university is not closed,” Derek Preas, director, Campus Operations and Safety, said. “The university and the campus will remain open as long as students are here.”

The university buildings are operating under modified business hours which are being reviewed for further modification, according to Preas.

A&M-Commerce announced its plan to transition to online-only classes during spring break. This change became effective the first day back from spring break.

The university’s goal is to assist students in continuing their education by providing classes online.

This change allowed students, faculty and staff to practice social isolation-a key component to reducing the spread of the coronavirus.

Students who need to come to campus for a specific reason, such as a resource that is only available at Gee Library, may do so. The library is not open for a student who just wants a quiet place to study, however.

Preas noted that one exception to facilities not being open for normal business is the nursing building. It is open for students in their final semester of classes to finish their clinical studies so they can join the workforce and relieve some of the strain on a health care industry that is quickly becoming overwhelmed.

Preas did not provide information on how many faculty and staff are present to allow the students to work or on what safety measures are being followed to reduce the chance of spreading the coronavirus.

SSC Service Solutions provides the university with custodial staff. The staff are  conducting precautionary sanitizations by performing their normal duties plus three additional sanitizations each day and adding 10 to 15 temporary workers per day to help with the increase in sanitizations.

The university has added motion-activated hand sanitizers that do not require touching the device to buildings and bombarded offices with alcohol-based sanitizing solution, according to Preas.

The university has gradually increased its efforts since January.

The university shuttle buses continue to run their normal campus routes and hours. Plus, transportation has added buses to nearby locations, such as grocery stores and pharmacies.

Preas did not provide information on what precautions are being taken on the buses, such as drivers and passengers wearing masks and gloves or sanitization procedures when a student enters or exits a bus.

“There is more of a need” for the buses to run, Preas said.

The Rayburn Student Center cafeteria has moved to take-out meals only. Preas complimented Sodexo and the employees for their efforts and explained the change was without incident due to pre-planning efforts. Students walk in, pick up a meal and leave without needing to touch anything else. Students are told to stay six feet apart from each other and the servers. Students have to put hand sanitizer on before entering the Lions Lair and the area is disinfected every hour with workers also washing their hands at least every hour. The area is disinfected every time a Sodexo employee sees an individual touch an item or sneeze. Students have everything served to them at stations, such as one station for hot food, one for salads, etc. Students with special dietary needs are able to inform the employees of their needs and a meal will be prepared if there is not one already available.

The Lion Mane Café has been closed. Student employees of Sodexo have been placed on leaves of absence until May. Staff has been reduced to supervisors, managers and lead employees.

Department heads across the university are identifying essential employees and those employees continue to report to work on campus. An essential employee is one providing critical infrastructure and meeting essential student needs. Their daily number fluctuates as needs change.

Routine campus maintenance, such as painting walls and non-essential repairs, has stopped.

A residence hall’s front desk is the point of contact for anyone wanting more information.

The residence halls are receiving extra cleaning, including the use of temporary workers who are sanitizing the community kitchens. These employees are not responsible for routine cleaning, such as taking out the trash.

The residence halls will remain open and the university has announced rebate plans for students who move out of the halls. “Everybody is monitoring groups of people,” Preas said. “I do not have any knowledge of people taking advantage of the 10+ rule.”

“Recognize we are working as hard as they want us to,” Preas said to residents and their parents.

A student who wants to be tested for the coronavirus should call the Student Health Center at 903-886-5853 first. The student’s vital signs will be taken along with their symptoms.  If he or she meets the criteria for testing, then staff can call the local emergency room and have a testing kit sent to us, according to Maxine Mendoza-Welch, MPAS, PA-C, director, Student Health Service.

The health center has seen a slight decrease in students reporting to the clinic since classes went online only.

Mendoza-Welch advises students who think they have been exposed to the virus to stay home and monitor their symptoms.

“Do not go to the ER unless you are having severe respiratory problems,” Mendoza-Welch said. “Our student population will most likely recover from the illness in 5-14 days as they are not in the high risk category according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

Students who need to be seen for issues not related to the coronavirus should call and make an appointment. The Student Health Center is still open Monday through Friday.

“We have seen a reduction in the number of students coming in, likely due to switching to an on-line format for classes,” Nick P. Patras, Ph.D., LPC-S, NCC director, university counseling center, said.

“The Counseling Center staff is considered an essential service and is currently open and seeing clients,” Patras said. “If you are a current client of the Center, you have the option to continue your therapy journey either in person or utilize distance counseling provided by the Counseling Center.  If you are a new client wanting to initiate mental health services, you can schedule an intake appointment by calling the Counseling Center at 903.886.5145. Both intake and future appointments can also be done either face-to-face or by distance counseling.

“With Covid-19 concerns, anxiety and fear about the future are the feelings being expressed by students,” Patras said. “There are many things that can help ground a person in reality during times of uncertainty:

  • Keep things in perspective. Follow the reasonable precautions to remain safe and healthy. What have you done in the past to remain resilient? Keep doing what worked in the past.
  • Get the facts. Look at reliable fact-based sources and decrease consumption of fear-based sources. Set strong limits around consumption of news.
  • Acknowledge your feelings. Social distancing does not mean social isolation. Use your phone, FaceTime, email, and other apps to remain in contact with your support system. Finds ways to help others (think elderly folks and others who may be unable to get out). Acting with compassion for others makes us feel better.
  • Mediation, focused attention on breathing properly, and finding a way to get grounded will help calm worry and anxiety. Allow yourself the time to notice what you are feeling without judgment.
  • Get Help. Recognize when you have reached the limit of what you can do on your own and then reach out for professional help. The Counseling Center website has many resources on its homepage and also has multiple options for received mental health services both in person and distance counseling as well. The phone number is 903.886.5145 and is answered 24/7 for crisis services.”

The university police department has not seen many crimes reported lately, according to Lt. Jason Bone, crime information officer.

“The police department is following common-sense good social distancing measures whenever possible,” to reduce the chance of officers catching or spreading the coronavirus, Bone said. “All members of the public are encouraged to use social distancing measures when dealing with officers or any other members of the community.  Symptomatic community members should inform first responders immediately.”

“Campus Recreation facilities and programs are shut down due to the virus and Gov. Greg Abbott’s declaration as well as Hunt County’s declaration,” Jonathan Johnston, associate director, Campus Recreation, said.

Closed areas include the basketball gym, racquetball courts, climbing wall, the MAC, Great OutRoars pool area and Cain Sports Complex.

Before closing, the campus recreation staff “deployed extra hand sanitizer and equipment cleaning stations and completed regular cleaning plus increased cleaning of high-touch points such as cardio and strength equipment, checkout equipment, handrails and door handles, locker rooms and restrooms,” Johnston said. “The cleaning solutions used in the facility are disinfectants, which inactivate or destroy microorganisms.”

All guest passes and purchasing of new community memberships is discontinued until full operations resume.

Johnston encouraged individuals desiring to stay active to “utilize our stay active anywhere resource, http://www.tamuc.edu/CampusLife/campusRecreation/Active%20Anywhere/default.aspx.”