During a virtual town hall meeting on Friday, Sept. 11, Augusta University President Brooks A. Keel, PhD, and Dr. Zach Kelehear, interim provost, said the term “the new normal” has often been used to describe ways the public must adapt during the current COVID-19 pandemic.
“This virus, if nothing else, has forced us to think about things differently, and it is a new normal, but because things are changing so rapidly… it’s not just the new normal, it is the now normal,” Keel said. “I think we have to think about things as, what are we doing right now? And not think too far down the road because things can change and things will change.”
While such a dynamic situation can create uncertainty and frustration, Keel said the faculty, staff and students at Augusta University have risen to the challenge.
“I’m really proud of every single one of you and incredibly grateful for all that you do,” Keel said. “Our whole mission revolves around providing an outstanding educational opportunity for our students and providing state-of-the-art, absolute quality care for our patients.”
Over the past six months and moving forward, the health and safety of Augusta University’s students, faculty, staff and patients remains a top priority, Keel said.
As in-person classes resumed at Augusta University in early August, positive COVID-19 cases had hit a peak in the Augusta area and across Georgia, but those numbers are now on a “downhill slide,” Keel said.
“When classes started, we started at the height of it, but it has been going down ever since,” Keel said. “And especially in the last week or so it has been a fairly dramatic decrease.”
For the period of Sept. 5-11, Augusta University has recorded 25 new positive COVID-19 cases among students and four new cases in employees. Since Aug. 1, there has been a total of 114 student cases and 53 employee cases.
Augusta University Medical Center currently has approximately 40 COVID-19 inpatient cases as of Sept. 11.
“We also know a heck of a lot more now about how to treat patients than we did back in March when this pandemic first started,” Keel said. “We’re able to manage those patients much better now, so we are what appears to be on a downhill slide on this and again, we’re most grateful, most thankful for that.”
But even back in early March, when Georgia began announcing some of the first COVID-19 positive patients, Augusta University was already preparing for the pandemic, Keel said.
“We have a very unique situation at Augusta University. We are the only university, in the entire 26 campus system of the University System of Georgia, that has a medical school and a health center and a hospital,” Keel said. “We’re the state’s only public academic medical center. That carries a great deal of responsibility for us, statewide, but also carries a great deal of opportunity for us as a campus community because we have so much of the expertise that we all depend on during a pandemic and we have it right here as part of our university.”
During the first few weeks of March, Dr. Ravindra Kolhe of the Georgia Esoteric and Molecular (GEM) Laboratory at the Medical College of Georgia’s Department of Pathology at Augusta University was already prepared with an in-house, lab-designed COVID-19 test. By March 15, Kolhe received emergency authorization approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for the in-house test, Keel said.
“At that time, it was the only in-house COVID-19 developed test in any lab in the state that wasn’t part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the Department of Health,” Keel said. “That really, I think, was a hallmark of what this great university can do because it is such a comprehensive university.”
Augusta University approached the COVID-19 testing in a “three-pronged approach,” Keel said.
“We had to find a way to screen patients, especially in the early part of the pandemic, to determine who needs to be tested. We had to find a safe and convenient way for patients to be sampled, to collect the sample in order to do the testing and we had to have the in-house test to do that,” Keel said. “It was so successful that, as you know, Gov. (Brian) Kemp asked us in the middle of April to help him take this process statewide in conjunction with the Department of Health and with the National Guard.
“It gave us a tremendous opportunity to show the rest of the state, and indeed the rest of the country, just what Augusta University truly is and how meaningful it is for our area and for our state.”
Keel assured students, staff and faculty that if they have concerns about being exposed to COVID-19, testing is available.
“If you need COVID-19 testing and you’re a student, faculty or staff member of Augusta University, you can call the hotline,” Keel said, adding that the AU Health COVID-19 testing hotline is 706-721-1852. “Please tell them that you are a student or a faculty member, and we can get you queued as a priority. Typically, we can get you tested if not that day, the next day. So far, our results have been coming back within 24 hours.
“Again, that speaks volumes to the great expertise and the great work that our frontline providers and health care providers are doing here at AU Health System.”
Keel was also proud to announce that, despite concerns over the pandemic, enrollment at Augusta University has increased this fall.
“As we started going into the fall semester, there was a great deal of uncertainty about what impact COVID-19 might have on our enrollment. Enrollment is such a very important aspect of any university, and it’s no different here at Augusta University,” he said. “We were really holding our breath and keeping our fingers crossed.”
Despite those concerns, the total enrollment for the fall semester at Augusta University is estimated to be 9,557 students. Official counts will come later this fall.
“That is stronger than it has been in nearly 10 years,” Keel said. “In fact, for the last five years, including this current semester, we have seen on average a 2.8% positive increase in enrollment, even in the face of the pandemic.”
If students, faculty and staff at Augusta University continue to remain vigilant against COVID-19 by social distancing and properly wearing face masks, Keel said he fully anticipates the campus will remain open this fall.
“We do not anticipate that we’re going to have to resort to going into fully online classes as we did back in the spring semester,” Keel said. “We are optimistic about where we are and where we are with the number of (COVID-19) cases, but we have to stay vigilant. We can’t take our foot off the gas.”
The key to the campus remaining open is the “three W’s,” Keel said.
“Wash your hands, watch your distance and wear a mask. It really, really, really is just that simple,” Keel said. “We’re all in this together and we will get through it together and there will be a normal. I promise you.”