Habif limits services as COVID-19 cases increase on campus, in St. Louis

Anirudh Kesanapally | Staff Reporter

As COVID-19 cases have increased in the St. Louis region, the Washington University community has simultaneously seen its own spike. According to the Danforth Campus COVID-19 Dashboard, daily cases have reached their peak since the beginning of surveillance testing in early October.

Curran Neenan | Student Life

Both factors have played a role in the University’s updates about the holiday season and spring semester. In emails sent out to students, parents, faculty and staff, the University has announced that students who travel more than 60 miles from campus for Thanksgiving are to stay home for the remainder of the fall semester and that the semester-long COVID policies are to be carried over into 2021.

Dr. Kevin Hsueh, an assistant professor at Washington University School of Medicine and a hospital epidemiologist at Barnes-Jewish, attributes much of the regional spike in cases to three main components.

“We’re entering winter, and the influenza season. At the same time as more people are stuck inside, the virus is getting introduced to different populations—notably an increasing rate of infection in younger individuals,” he said. “And of course, the challenge of not having strong mask mandates, social distancing rules and quarantining enforcement.”

In other words, the seasonal transition, population dynamics and relatively less aggressive COVID-19 rules have all contributed towards the regional spike that has raised the alarm with the University community, and for good reason.

Dr. Steven Lawrence, also an assistant professor at the School of Medicine, is heavily involved in the planning and coordination of the University’s COVID-19 response plan.

“The rise in cases in the region is concerning mostly because although rates of transmission are slightly higher outside Wash. U., there will be a spillover effect that impacts our own situation,” he said.

Although recent student body focus has been on the decision to travel home for Thanksgiving and the University’s announcement for replacing spring break with two wellness days, student medical services have experienced their own changes.

Habif Health and Wellness Center announced on Nov. 13 that they are “suspending all routine care except for reproductive health care.” Habif is still involved with monitoring community COVID-19 cases, but other medical issues are now dependent upon Washington University Express Care at Barnes-Jewish Hospital.

“Habif has not abruptly ended its services—it has shifted some of our medical care and temporarily stopped routine care to manage COVID-19 more effectively,” Habif Executive Director Dr. Cheri LeBlanc said. “Even with relatively few cases in comparison to our surroundings, each case takes many hours of work from Habif staff. With increasing numbers of positives each day, we have had to switch most of our medical care to managing COVID-19.”

This change has forced students to deal with the repercussions of transferring services and locations, leaving some students to be critical of Habif’s timeline for this announcement.

Sophomore Nicole Leers, the chair of Student Union’s Health and Wellness Committee, said that although the virus should be the priority, it is equally important for the Danforth Campus to address all aspects of student health.

“I think that increased communication and strong publication of alternative ways to access care would have been very helpful for students,” she said. “For students without a car, it is hard to find safe transportation to Wash. U. Medical Center where they can receive care. We also stake so much on our academic success, and without easy access to care at Habif, I am worried that students will fall out of the care that is so critical to their health and the health of the community.”

The core services the Habif Health and Wellness Center has once provided—namely in-person mental health and routine care—have been negated due to the pandemic. Dr. LeBlanc followed up her explanation by detailing that Habif needs to “remain nimble and pivot our priorities as the need dictates” and once Habif can “fully operationalize its increased staff, we hope to bring back our routine cases.”

Dr. Lawrence classified this change in Habif services as both a reactive and a proactive measure to benefit the University community in the long run.

“There was a spike last week, and although it isn’t a huge spike compared to other large outbreaks, this is still enough to bump against our ability to maintain control of the transmission on campus,” he said. “Contact tracing needs to be done in a timely manner and Habif Health and Wellness needs to monitor everyone’s health and all the space for quarantine and isolation. If we were not making any changes to our plan, we would run out of capacity.”

In regards to the spring plan, Lawrence has a high-degree of confidence that curricular activities are safe and the testing plan is on-track to be very similar to the one this semester.

“Yes, surveillance testing will still be a thing, but the most important aspect of testing as a strategy is diagnostic testing, and that’s certainly going to continue on for spring semester,” he said. “If anyone has any symptoms they need to let us know, as any error with not testing people who have symptoms is devastating to the response.”

Both Hsueh and Lawrence shared an optimistic tone about approaching developments on a national and communal level. The unprecedented rate in vaccine development, the improvements the medical community has made from earlier this year and the University community doing better than was predicted are all positive signs for 2021.

“The best precaution against the spread of COVID-19 is still social distancing and mask wearing,” Hsueh said, urging students to comply in order to return to normal as quickly as possible.

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