The Vermillion Area Chamber and Development Company facilitated a discussion earlier this month with school and community leaders to discuss the COVID-19 pandemic.
Panel members that participated in the event, held Dec. 9 at the Old Lumber Company, included Michelle Chaussee from Vermillion Medical Clinic, Kevin O’Kelley from the University of South Dakota, Rachel Olson from Sanford Health and Vermillion School Superintendent Damon Alvey.
“As we planned this panel and discussion we were optimistic and hopeful that we were going to be long gone out of that crazy year of COVID that we had,” said Nate Welch, VCDC president. “I think we’re getting out of it but we’re still sort of in it, so today’s discussion is really going to be a great one.”
As Welch pointed out, the pandemic has been a unique trial in that it touches everyone in some way.
“As I look back over the last couple of years, each and every one of us had to deal with this,” Welch said. “Not one of us didn’t have to adjust.”
Chaussee, who has been working as a physician’s assistant in Vermillion since 2009, said she remembers vividly the first recorded COVID case in Vermillion back in 2020.
“I think it was very shocking that it was here,” Chaussee said. “It took the medical community awhile to figure things out. How do we test people, how do we keep our patients safe? But I really think the medical community in Vermillion was wonderful and responded quickly and efficiently and I think we did a good job of testing and treating and managing things.”
A quick response at USD included an emergency response plan which was directed to O’Kelley’s department.
“We plan for fires, floods and tornadoes and things like that,” O’Kelley said. “Well, COVID came around and they said Kevin, this is an emergency. Here you go -- it’s yours. Here’s a desk.”
Though feeling unprepared, O’Kelley said the university’s Incident Command System gave them a structure to deal with emergencies.
“So, we created a team and dealt with it as best we could,” O’Kelley said. “I guess the main thing was everything was new. Every day we learned something new and we had to adjust on the fly.”
According to O’Kelley, it felt rewarding to be surrounded by all the knowledgeable people that are in Vermillion, especially at the university, as we are all still learning.
“A year and a half ago we were in crisis mode,” O’Kelley said. “Covid is still with us, but it’s an entirely different world now. We have a different set of challenges we’re still dealing with but thankfully it’s not April 2020 anymore. Our COVID management team is still there because COVID is still with us, but we now know a lot more and I'm really happy about that.”
Olson, director of clinic operations at Sanford, remembers when testing for COVID was only done at Sanford, whereas now there is much more testing and treatment availability.
She shared how impressed she was at the community’s response to the vaccine with 700 in one day at the most.
“The whole community was passionate about getting the vaccine with great volunteers to come and help with flow,” Olson said. “It was exciting for us and just this last Friday we were able to give 150 vaccines so I really hope that we can get back to that point where we’re really focusing on that vaccine effort with those boosters, getting the kids vaccinated and seeing the potential end to the pandemic with the vaccines and the treatments options that are coming.”
Alvey remembered how the two week hiatus from school turned into the whole semester off and having to deal with the switch to virtual learning.
According to Alvey, what started out as paper packets sent home blossomed into getting devices out and learning how to install various learning apps along with the challenge of making sure every child had wifi access.
Food service also flipped in one day to begin providing bagged breakfasts and lunches to students at home, according to Alvey.
“Over the course of that time we gave over 80,000 bagged lunches that spring through that summer all free of charge,” he said. “All the staff was working keeping that kitchen going so food insecurity wouldn’t be a big issue.”
Alvey expressed pride in the students, staff and families of the school district who tackled the challenges in a professional manner.
The panelists reflected on communication successes and pitfalls during the early months of the pandemic.
According to O’Kelley, we were very fortunate to have the internet.
“If we were back in the 1918 Spanish flu it would have been an entirely different story and people wouldn’t have known what to do,” he said. “But at the university, we have email and we get messages in real time. It’s a system where we can get a message to every student and every faculty member.”
Transparency was a priority, according to O’Kelley.
“We had a directive from the South Dakota Board of Regents that involved our university to be completely transparent so we didn’t hide anything,” he said. “Everything that we knew we posted on our website immediately.”
According to O’Kelley, their communication strategy was complete openness, transparency and scheduled communication, mostly over Zoom.
“We didn’t just wake up and something came up and we had a meeting,” he said. “We scheduled and structured the communication and it worked very well from the beginning.”
Regular communication was the norm with the school board as well, according to Alvey.
“Our board met every week during the initial months of the pandemic and our administration team met every day because we didn’t know what we were dealing with,” he said. “We had staff sent home. We had to plan what to do with kids being gone for two weeks and of course it turned into two months and so it was constant communication with our folks and our buildings, trying to learn from Sanford what we’re dealing with.”
According to Olson, Vermillion is in a unique place with the university and expertise within it.
Having the right facts is essential going forward as well facing the new variant.
“We want to make sure we have the facts and not fear,” she said.
With the wealth of information available at the masses’ fingertips, the panel acknowledged the challenge of getting correct information out in an accessible form.
“I can tell you from experience that nobody reads science,” O’Kelley said. “Fortunately, we have a communications department and we have a marketing department and they’re experts at getting the message out…and we found ways that encouraged people to read them. We were very fortunate to have that skill set in our group.”
Another topic discussed by the panelists was the resources and services that became available to support staff, parents and students in their emotional resilience.
According to O’Kelley, this was a challenge, with COVID being a huge stress on top of an already stressful time of life.
“In April we didn’t know how horrible the disease might be and so students were scared,” O’Kelley said. “...You leave your house, you go to college, college is hard, the food is not what your mom made, you miss your dog and then you’ve got COVID-19. Everything adds up on these poor kids and we do what we could.”
He had his hands full with mothers wanting to swoop in and take care of their sick college students.
“I know that moms want to come and take their child home and mop their forehead with a cool washcloth and they can’t because the mom’s not vaccinated; the world is better off if the child stays in isolation for 10 days,” O’Kelley said. “Sometimes they went home, they’re allowed to, they’re grown ups but if they chose to stay we took care of them.”
He said the housing staff stepped up as well.
“We didn’t worry about overtime,” O’Kelley said. “Everybody worked overtime.”
According to O’Kelley, the student counseling center stepped up with increased staffing, hours and communication of availability.
“It’s anonymous, professional and we purchased an app for anonymous emailing,” he said.
O’Kelley expressed pleasure in the result of the efforts.
“I think that the sense of community, the regular communication, and of course kids are resilient,” he said. “They’re stronger than we give them credit for. I think we did really well as a community in helping these students.”
Working parents of younger children sent home from school had an extra challenge juggling distance learning with remote work.
“I think we should do a research study on my four kids alone,” Olson said. “One of them said to me today if you’re a third grader the last normal year was when you were in kindergarten and that’s exactly what I have and the other two kids haven’t had a normal year. That’s going to leave some major gaps and as a school we’ll need to prepare for that.”
According to Olson, when a daycare closes or a child needs to be quarantined it means one less nurse or provider.
Olson’s challenge is being flexible and juggling what everyone has to deal with.
“It has been really tough and it’s not over yet,” she said.
According to Alvey, the physical safety precautions in schools were the easy part.
“You can see it, you can measure it, you can get the feel of it,” he said. “The emotional side of it obviously hits people differently.”
According to Alvey, Zoom meetings were held about resiliency and the school insurance offers free counseling services and emotional support groups for adults.
Some COVID policies and procedures worked so well they have stuck around, according to the panelists, and some have been updated.
Masking policies continue, Olson said.
“They’ve been instrumental in keeping us safe,” she said.
“We’re still masking as well,” Chaussee said of the Vermillion Medical Clinic. “I think people are used to it by now at healthcare facilities.”
For the schools, the 55-page pandemic policy which became the return to school plan is still in place, according to Alvey.
The plan is updated depending on what science and data says.
“Although we’ve removed plexiglass in our buildings and things, they’re still there,” Alvey said. “If a student or a teacher requires them and feels comfortable with them and wants them, those are still in place. Masks are still there for those who want them; it’s not mandated at this time.”
Things that will stick in the schools include the emphasis on hygiene.
“They get it now, they understand the importance of hand washing and the importance of having not such close contact with people,” Alvey said of students. “There’s a boundary that we’ve established and kids understand that and they respect that.”
Also sticking around will be the learning device policy.
“We don’t necessarily send our devices home with our littles at this point but they all have their own device now,” Alvey said.
Other changes due to COVID include reduced attendance at games and fewer visitors.
“We don’t encourage as many moms and dads to have lunch with their kids like we used to,” Alvey said. “Will we get back to that? I hope so, but right now everyone understands that it’s for safety and we don’t want to bring anything that’s not absolutely necessary into the buildings.”
According to Chaussee, some COVID procedures would be a good idea regardless of the pandemic.
“I think we’ve touched on a lot of these things, masking, PPE, testing patients outside, reducing the amount of patients that are symptomatic coming into the building is a good idea in general,” Chaussee said.
Looking back, she said, it seems strange that it was ever normal for flu, strep and other infectious patients sitting together inside a clinic with no masks.
“I think moving forward maybe it is a good idea to continue those practices,” Chaussee said. “As a healthcare provider, too, when we walk into a room with a patient who has influenza and you aren’t wearing a mask and they aren’t wearing a mask, those things (mask wearing) are probably good to keep going forward just to protect everyone.”
Masks have become a common courtesy, according to O’Kelley, as is staying home when you’re sick.
“If you’re ill or with someone you don’t know you wear a mask,” he said. “Now, the food service people at the university -- they’re all wearing masks. We know now you’re not a hero if you come to work sneezing and coughing. It used to be ‘I’m a tough guy and won’t take a sick day’ but guess what? We want you to use it and go home.”
The biggest silver lining from the pandemic, the panelists all agreed, was the way the community came together.
“It was just in our community and the access to be able to pick up a phone and call anybody who needed anything,” Olson said. “We were all able to make moves and changes quickly because I was able to call Kevin and Damon and we would take care of it real quick because we are taking care of our community. We were able to vaccinate because we got the help and support from our community.”
“Community is key,” he said. “I love this community more now than ever. We worked to solve a serious life changing problem.”