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Garrison-Foster Health Center copes with staffing shortages and the COVID-19 pandemic

A visit to the Garrison-Foster Health Center looks different this year than in years past. Previously, one could easily walk in and see a healthcare professional or call in the morning to book an appointment for the same day.

However, with the risks posed by COVID-19, the health center has had to change some of its protocols to ensure the safety of the College community. Students must have an appointment to be seen. There is no sitting in a waiting room. Instead, students ring a doorbell at the entrance to be greeted and then have their temperature taken.

As the College tries to navigate one of, if not the, most serious health crises in recent memory, the school’s health center would be expected to be a point of guidance for members of the community to look at for advice and care. With all eyes on the health center, one of the biggest challenges the center has faced is staffing shortages.

This past January, right before the onslaught of the pandemic, the College’s longtime medical director Dr. Paul Berkner retired. Dr. Berkner’s successor, Dr. Scott Lowman, not only had to adjust to his new position, but he was also quickly put into the limelight when COVID-19 paralyzed the United States in March, when he eventually advised the administration on the decision to send students home.

About a week before the College welcomed back students for the start of the fall semester in mid-August, two of the health center’s nurse practitioners also decided not to return. This created a void that quickly needed to be filled.

Head Nurse Judy Whyte spoke to The Colby Echo about how the year has been going.

“Any time staff turnover happens it is a difficult transition to find your stride again. But I must say, with the clinical support from Maine Dartmouth Family Medicine Residency, we entered the [20]20-21 [academic year] a bit less worried about how to meet the demands of student health care. With their mission of respect and teamwork, support for personal well-being and openness and appreciation of difference we had solid footing to take on the biggest challenges … COVID [-19] in higher education,” she said.

The health center currently employs nurse practitioners from Maine Dartmouth in Waterville, although there still aren’t as many nurses on hand compared to last year. This can at times mean longer wait times for students.

Another task the health center has taken on has been calling and checking up on students who report symptoms through the CoVerified app. Nurse Robin Schafer explained that the health center will call students who have reported symptoms for three straight days.

Whyte explained that, “the reporting of symptoms on CoVerified is one part of Colby’s  mitigation efforts to keep our campus community as safe from COVID-19 as possible. When students report the start of symptoms (cough, cold, sore throat, fever, etc), it gives us the opportunity to provide preventive education to students and to help establish a plan for self care and what to do if symptoms worsen.”

The call is not meant to penalize the student in any way but rather to give them advice on how to self-medicate and manage their illness. Schafer added that any student who comes to the health center reporting symptoms will be directed to a special patient room set aside for sick students.

“I’ll usually wear extra [personal protective equipment and an N95 mask if I’m working with a student experiencing symptoms. Also, all the patient rooms get cleaned and sanitized between visits now,” Schafer said.

When asked if the number of visits to the health center have gone up or down this year, Schafer says that number has actually been down compared to previous years. Schafer guessed that part of the reason for this trend could be reluctance of students because of trouble getting an appointment or the stigma of being sick in the age of COVID-19, but Schafer also credited the drop to the mask mandate at the College.

“The majority of the visits before were for colds. I think the masks have played a big part in mitigating the spread of the flu between students,” she said.

It is also important to note the distinction between the services provided by the health center and the testing tent. The health center is not involved with providing testing.

Whyte said, “The COVID[-19] testing team [was] hired to support the twice weekly COVID-19 testing of all faculty staff and students. It was an enormous undertaking to pull together and I am impressed with all they have accomplished. Health Services, as a result, has been able to maintain their focus on providing health care to students in much the same way as we always have.”

~ Fiona Huo ‘23

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