Thank you once again for a great start to this academic year. I continue to be grateful for the way the entire UM family – students, staff and faculty – is adapting to the many challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.
As you know, our campus community worked incredibly hard this spring and summer to plan and prepare for this academic year. I was so impressed by the way our colleagues worked collaboratively, transparently and creatively to adapt our entire University’s operations in response to this situation. UM’s Healthy Fall 2020 Plan
was the product of the hard work and expertise of many people across campus – faculty, staff and students – and was developed in close coordination with public health officials at the local and state level.
First, I want to shed light on our efforts to ensure community access to accurate information regarding the prevalence of the virus on our campus. It is important to me that our community is able to access accurate and comprehensive information regarding campus-specific COVID-19 cases. In doing so, we must first acknowledge that county health departments and Montana DPHHS are the lead agencies in reporting statistical case data across the state. And we must balance the need to protect individual privacy with our commitment to accuracy and transparency.
Recognizing this, we are working closely with the Missoula City-County Health Department (MCCHD), as the statistical reporting entity for our community, and have asked that they share the data they are able to regarding campus-specific cases and the information that is most relevant and accurate for our campus community.
I’d like to provide additional context to explain why this collaboration with MCCHD is so critical. As you may know, there are significant limitations on UM’s ability to know and report the full scope of case data for students, staff and faculty on our campus. The only actual case data identified that the University can access directly is for students who are tested in our Curry Health Center. While we have taken the important step of waiving all fees for students to be tested at Curry and are encouraging students to be tested there, if a student, staff member or faculty member is tested elsewhere – through their primary care physician, a local walk-in clinic, a hospital or a drive-through testing facility, for example – the results of those tests are not available to University officials due to privacy laws regarding health information. Given that the vast majority of our students live off-campus and many are part-time students who live and work across the county, as well as the fact that our faculty and staff members also live across the community and have children in the K-12 schools and family members who work at other organizations, the case data available from Curry presents a limited picture of the situation.
We are working directly with MCCHD on how to parse University-specific or UM-affiliated cases and how they might, with the same privacy-law constraints, share that information. Discussions late last week, with follow-up actions for this week, give me hope we can move closer to a process for the county to report the data in compliance with regulations. Of course, UM will assist in disseminating any public information to our students and employees.
Meanwhile, I want to reiterate that our campus team continues to monitor the overall situation every day. Earlier this year, to assist with our planning efforts for this semester, we established a Health Advisory Group, composed of faculty and staff members and medical and public health experts from across campus and in the community. As we have transitioned to the start of the semester, a subset of that group – the COVID-19 Response Team (CRT) – now meets every day to assess the current situation. This group reviews a broad range of factors such as community case data, our campus’s operational capacity to respond, quarantine and isolation capacity, availability of PPE and cleaning supplies, among others. The CRT assesses daily our current mitigation measures and whether additional measures may be warranted. While decision authority regarding any changes to our campus operational status rests with the commissioner of higher education and the governor, this group plays a critical role in ensuring we are taking the necessary steps to protect the health and safety of our of campus community while ensuring that our students can keep on learning. You can see a list of the members of the CRT here, as well as a graphical depiction of the factors the group takes into account in their assessment.
I want to once again thank our entire campus community for the collaborative way you are addressing the many challenges presented by COVID-19. We will get through this together.