Doctor Merill Miller’s presence on Colgate’s campus has always been appreciated. She joined the university’s medical team in the summer of 1981, acquiring a myriad of accolades like proudly becoming the first, and only, female head physician for a Division I college football team, maintaining the position of co-chairperson of Colgate’s Wellness Initiative, being a board member of the Southern Madison County Volunteer Ambulance Corps. (SoMAC) and the host and producer of the WRCU-FM radio show “What’s Up Doc?”. Impassioned by the exuberance of a college campus, Dr. Miller has found her home amongst Colgate University’s students, faculty and staff, tirelessly caring for them when they are ill and at their worst, cheering for them as they take on the ice or stage at their very best.
Undoubtedly this year posed a challenge for Dr. Miller and her team as universities across the country sought to reopen — and remain open — amidst a global pandemic. For Colgate, this arduous and relentless process began all the way back in January when COVID-19 seemed like an abstract threat. Since then, an emergency operations team, of which Dr. Miller is an integral member, has taken shape to constantly evolve this University’s COVID-19 response.
“Thankfully, Colgate has many, many, very well-qualified people who know their area of expertise so well that they can really come together. Literally our emergency operations center consists of over 50 people. You need to have this sort of broad expertise when coming to decision making and that is why the team of 50 works,” Dr. Miller said.
She praised the tireless work of Dan Gough and shed light on the leading mantra he has relied on since the official formation of this emergency operations center team, “move up, move down.” Gough’s mantra reflects the ways in which the task force has handled such an incredibly daunting challenge in navigating COVID-19 as safely and effectively as possible. The key, as Dr. Miller echoes, is to remain flexible. Colgate’s strength seems to lie in the reliance on all 50 members of the task force, being able to consult various people depending on their specific expertise and constantly adapting to the needs of each and every decision being made. The committee initially met twice a week and started meeting daily in March and throughout the summer. Now, the committee has returned to meeting twice a week.
However, the Health Analytics Team continues to meet every single day. This speaks volumes to the effort that individuals like Dr. Miller are putting in. She says that every single day her team tracks 25 different metrics, weary of the factors that impact this campus’s ability to operate beyond simply the number of cases. Things like the amount of personal protective equipment (PPE) that is in stock or able to be ordered, how quickly health center team members are going through PPE or how often custodians clean each building is being closely monitored daily. Prior to returning, the biggest challenge the team faced, from a health services perspective, was trying to make sure the comprehensive testing process was soundly in place. Logistically, in a short time frame, thousands of tests were done and any positive result or close-contact identification had to be followed up on to ensure an opportunity for Colgate’s COVID-19 plan to ever get the chance to lift off the ground.
According to Dr. Miller, this process is going well.
“The fact that there are COVID-19 cases in Hamilton and amongst the Colgate community is not surprising. We have made a robust plan to keep COVID-19 at a very low level. The analogy I often say is, ‘[keep cases] at little embers so it never gets to a fire and never gets to a forest fire.’ This is the only chance for everyone to continue getting an education here,” she said.
Throughout the remainder of the semester, 300 surveillance tests are performed weekly on faculty, staff and students. The team at health services, led by Dr. Miller, has effectively learned how to use new testing equipment to be able to perform tests in a tent located outside of the main student health services building. The office, stripped of its posters and drapery in exchange for PPE, may look different, but very much maintains its core function: providing health services for students on campus. In the age of COVID-19, health services has opened two new sites to expand its ability to keep students safe. At the Wendt Inn, a clinic was opened to provide aid to anyone in isolation or quarantine. The satellite clinic, located in Curtis Hall, has reopened to exclusively provide care for students with COVID-19 symptoms. The goal is to keep those who may be COVID-positive separate from other students to help decrease any possible exposure to COVID-19. Telehealth and Zoom calls will also persist all semester to further care for students. Any visits to the health center must be prefaced with a phone call so that the team can properly prepare themselves, and the space, if additional PPE is required.
Unfortunately, it is not as simple as solely relying on the health services task force and their dedication to helping provide such a robust plan to effectively care for the Colgate community. Rather, to make this semester on campus successful, the responsibility falls on everyone.
“In a situation like this, everybody has a very important job. The custodian who is cleaning currently is every bit as important as the person in the lab going in and running a COVID-19 test. [These people are] every bit as important as a person on upper campus who has to negotiate the contract with the company to make sure that we get gloves when we need them, that we get gowns when we need them. Everyone has a very important job in this. Same for people who are not only preparing the food but also those delivering the food. Everybody is important and you can’t get through without everybody going ahead and taking care of themselves and each other,” Dr. Miller humbly reflects.
Students, in particular, are tasked with an unprecedented responsibility in keeping this entire Hamilton community safe and healthy. Part of this challenge, according to Dr. Miller, exists in the normalities Colgate students have had to forfeit. Dr. Miller notes how things like large group socialization, a part of daily life students feel accustomed to, if not entitled to, is no longer conducive to maintaining community health guidelines. Even more challenging is how living situations pose a threat to the Commitment to Community Health, a problem faced by college campuses across the country. For one, the residential setting at Colgate boasts a vast range from single rooms to sixteen-person townhouses. Shared residential spaces like the townhouse certainly encourage and breed contact in a way we never have had to seriously consider, posing a huge threat to maintaining a low number of cases and close contacts in Dr. Miller’s eyes.
“[Shared residential spaces like the townhouses] has brought to light that people need to be even more careful than they have in the past. [More careful] about cleaning up after themselves and to be aware of what they are sharing in terms of mouth to mouth interactions, not just kissing… water bottles, vaping … that’s all the sort of thing that people would share with each other that were never ideal. Now? Certainly, they are not just not ideal, but dangerous right now,” Dr. Miller cautions.
Nonetheless, Dr. Miller is impressed with how Colgate students have taken these restrictions and guidelines to heart. She commends the way students have dedicated themselves to wearing masks and taking the initial quarantine seriously. The key, as the University approaches Gate 2, is for students not to get bored with the new status quo. It is human nature to crave more human interaction as the risk feels mitigated. It is hard to say “no” or “not right now” when faced with the opportunity to slip back into a feeling of normalcy.
“We’re not naive. I think we know that 17-22 year olds, by nature, are not ones that will stay in individual cubicles forever. What we are hoping is that the vast majority of our students, faculty, staff and people in the community will make good decisions. They will want to do the right thing for themselves and the public good,” she said. “Everyone is in this together. Decisions will have a domino effect…I know that there will be some breaches, our hope is that they will be small rather than large and that the people will be taking responsibility for themselves and others.”
Simply put, Dr. Miller knows that for any of this to succeed, students must continue to hold themselves, and others, accountable. They must remember that this is a significant health risk. They must remember that this pandemic has already killed 195,000 Americans. Despite the feeling a “bubble” is being created, COVID-19 is a global pandemic and one that is far from over.
Dr. Miller implores, “I would love for everybody to realize that right now everyone has some hardship, but at the end of the hardship we hopefully will all have gotten over this pandemic which has already claimed just short of a million lives. We need to realize the ways we want to keep that number from increasing.”
Colgate Health Services has worked tirelessly to bring students back safely. Dr. Miller has put in countless hours meeting, planning, adapting, performing tests and educating her team. The future lies in the hands of students to maintain distancing, mask-wearing and hand washing. It relies on curbing desires to return to normalcy and prioritizing the community’s health over individual decision-making. It relies on every student getting a flu shot– starting the last week of September via Colgate health services weekly clinics by appointment. It requires a commitment to ourselves, one another, and the community at large. It requires all working together.