One of the main priorities of Clemson’s College of Behavioral, Social and Health Sciences (CBSHS) is to serve rural communities in a variety of ways. The CBSHS Joseph F. Sullivan Center has long been a part of this effort as an interdisciplinary health center seeking to improve health in rural, underserved communities and the Clemson employee community.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the needs of these communities into focus. Testing for COVID-19 has become vitally important in rural areas, just as it has at Clemson University as faculty, staff and students began the Fall 2020 semester.
All these reasons add up to a group of faculty and staff in the college who worked overtime this summer and have a busy academic year ahead. According to Leslie Hossfeld, dean of the college, the fall will only be busier with outreach work in rural communities to provide COVID-19 testing, medical surveillance for employees, and a crucial role for faculty acting as COVID-19 experts.
“Our college has been and will continue to be heavily involved in Clemson’s response to COVID-19 both within and external to the University,” Hossfeld said. “The needs in our state, especially in rural areas, are ever-present. The pandemic has only made those needs more acute while adding to the services that vulnerable populations require. I’m proud to say that we’re expanding to meet those needs, continuing our mission of building people and communities and playing a crucial role in ensuring the safety of those in the Clemson Family.”
Public Health Expertise
Several faculty members in the public health sciences department have acted as go-to experts on COVID-19, either working with the University’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC), clarifying issues with the media, or both. Faculty including Corey Kalbaugh, Lior Rennert and Lu Shi have all contributed in this way since the early days of the pandemic.
Kalbaugh, an assistant professor in the public health sciences department, focuses his research on disease epidemiology. He said the faculty who work in the many areas involving COVID-19 have helped to establish lines of research that will exist at Clemson long after the pandemic is over.
“Our department’s faculty members have enjoyed collaborations with both statistical sciences and environmental engineering faculty that may have never happened if it weren’t for this pandemic,” Kalbaugh said. “We have also engaged graduate students in this research who will be leaders when the next pandemic occurs. Our work in this area has produced clear examples of research collaboration and student learning that will benefit us all in the future.”
Rural Health Outreach
Collaboration has not been limited to areas of research and student learning but includes outreach efforts as well. According to Ron Gimbel, chair of the public health sciences department and director of the Sullivan Center, outreach teams have expanded in regard to both clinicians and outreach vehicles in order to collaborate with teams from the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) as part of the Healthy Me – Healthy SC program to improve health care access and combat health disparities throughout our state.
Marvina Jones joined the CBSHS team as program manager for rural health and community development before the pandemic began, so she saw her own goals as well as those of the Sullivan Center readjust to focus on the state’s expansion of COVID-19 screenings. Jones is working with the Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service and MUSC to maximize the amount of testing completed in rural and underserved communities in the Upstate and Midlands.
“We’re working with MUSC to transport supplies and equipment from the Lowcountry to the Upstate while leveraging partnerships with Extension agents who are helping to identify sites with parking lots and traffic patterns that support the amount of people we’re expecting,” Jones said. “I’m proud to be a part of such a diverse, experienced team that can identify and mitigate barriers to screenings before we encounter them.”
While Jones spearheads Clemson’s COVID screening teams for the Sullivan Center, she also takes the opportunity to factor education into each outreach trip. She said clearly communicating the importance of face coverings, handwashing and social distancing are just as important to stop the spread of COVID-19, so taking the opportunity to stress these practices with those receiving tests can be just as important as the tests themselves.
Coordination and logistics are of the utmost importance to successful outreach, and those involved in the planning to contact trace and test within the bounds of Clemson University are faced with many of the same issues. Will Mayo, director of medical surveillance for the Sullivan Center, is charged with ensuring the center efficiently and effectively contact traces employees and provides clinical follow-up for those who test positive for COVID-19 while also mitigating the risk of COVID-19 in general.
Mayo said he has been heartened to see the level of coordination between the Sullivan Center and other University entities, such as Redfern Health Center, Clemson Computing and Information Technology, the medical consultants, and the University’s executive leadership team. According to Mayo, all of these entities are working in tandem to ensure all aspects of contact tracing are coordinated, to deliver the best possible service to the Clemson Family.
Mayo said an example of this increased collaboration can be seen between Redfern and the Sullivan Center. The centers normally interact with very different populations, but to ensure the University is in the best position to manage positive cases and reduce risk, they are sharing contact tracing resources for employees, students and contract workers, which ensures Clemson tracing resources will be available for all when needed.
“The Sullivan Center is heavily involved in faculty, staff and contract employee health, and many of these people are considered essential employees; without them the University would be hard pressed to function successfully,” Mayo said. “The center has been working collaboratively across campus to mitigate COVID-19-related risk and ensure essential Clemson jobs that need to get done are accomplished.”
Mayo said he has been in awe throughout the summer at the work of those in the Sullivan Center and the other University employees he has worked closely with in planning for the Fall. Angie Reid, a nurse colleague at the Sullivan Center, has been instrumental in the extensive planning required for medical surveillance. He also said it has been eye-opening to see how the work of team members outside of the Sullivan Center, such as Administrative and Support Staff Executive Director George Clay and Medical Services Director Leslie Pekarek, have had a bearing on the center’s mission.
“The level of dedication I’ve witnessed, and the diversity of ideas welcomed on this issue from both inside and outside of our college makes me proud to be part of Clemson University,” Mayo said. “It has been amazing to see solutions to daunting tasks come together seemingly overnight because people want to see Clemson’s employees and students remain healthy so that they can succeed and thrive.”
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