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Higher Education’s Role in Fighting the Coronavirus

Tufts University President Tony Monaco calls on Fletcher military fellows, faculty and students to help the community stop the spread of the coronavirus.

The quickly expanding COVID-19 outbreak in the United States is soon expected to outstrip the capacity of our hospitals, as in Italy, where they have resorted to makeshift tents, hallways, and parking lots. When this happens, colleges and universities must take a leadership role in relieving this unprecedented stress on our health care system.

Most colleges and universities have sent students home in order to “de-densify” their campuses and reduce the potential for community spread. As a result, universities currently have a surplus of residential capacity with well-developed infrastructure — Wi-Fi and IT networks, dining services, and the ability to zone off residential areas for different purposes. These campuses are well situated to relieve stress on local hospitals as they reach peak capacity due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Recently, a Tufts University undergraduate who had tested positive for COVID-19 unintentionally exposed other individuals to the virus, all of whom have been tracked and asked to self-isolate. From our experience responding to this need for students to self-quarantine and working with our affiliated hospital, Tufts Medical Center, I have identified five actions that colleges and universities with significant residential capacity should take now to help our communities. Tufts University is prepared to take these steps and has informed local health care leaders and the mayors of Somerville and Medford that they can count on us to help address their needs. I hope my fellow higher education leaders also will take these steps.

▪ If you have trained military personnel, retired executives, or government leaders in your academic or local community, engage them for operations and communications advice. At Tufts, we have enlisted the help of military fellows, graduate students, and faculty at the Fletcher School to assist. Their training and field experience with both military and civilian populations can be helpful in setting up campus operations during the outbreak. Establish an incident command structure to oversee management and communications. The important logistical decisions you make now will affect how you operate when the COVID-19 outbreak has affected many more in the community.

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