Homeward Bound

HMS academic, research community responds to COVID-19 pandemic

photo of two male students carrying luggage down stairs in front of Vanderbilt Hall
J.C. Panagides (left) and Mitchell Winkie moving out of Vanderbilt Hall on March 13. Image: Steve Lipofsky

This article is part of Harvard Medical School’s continuing coverage of medicine, biomedical research, medical education and policy related to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic and the disease COVID-19.

Two Harvard Medical School students, toting large suitcases, waited in the lobby of Vanderbilt Hall for their ride to Logan International Airport. First-year student J.C. Panagides was headed to Sterling, Virginia. Mitchell Winkie, another first-year student, was off to Pittsburgh.

With their spring semester abruptly curtailed and their classes moved online to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus, neither knew for certain when they would be returning to the Quad.

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For both students, as for the rest of the HMS community and the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has triggered a cascade of events that changes almost hourly. On March 13, the same day Panagides and Winkie departed, Harvard University President Lawrence Bacow notified the University that two members of the Harvard community had been tested for COVID-19.

One tested positive and was receiving care off campus, Bacow said, while the other was awaiting test results. A third individual, who had close contact with the person who tested positive, was also being tested. Two days later, Harvard University Health services reported that the second person had a negative result but the third had a presumptive positive test and was also receiving care off campus.

In light of the growing pandemic, and in an effort to protect the health of the HMS community, first-year medical and dental school students, as well as second- and third-year dental students, were asked to vacate their rooms in Vanderbilt Hall during the week of March 8. The aim was to limit the number of residents there to no more than 37, and possibly fewer, with the rest relocated to other Harvard facilities to ensure safe space ratios. By March 17, however, the plan was to move all Vanderbilt residents out of the dorm completely and relocate them to Harvard Business School housing.

Departing HMS students who headed off campus were told they would not incur financial penalties and would receive a prorated refund of prepaid rent.

“The most important thing to be mindful of right now is the need to de-densify our community,” wrote HMS Dean for Students Fidencio Saldaña in a letter to students. “The best way we can help fight the spread of this disease is through smart social distancing; the greater the density we maintain, the more everyone around us is at risk.”

“Students have been extremely cooperative. Everyone is taking it in stride,” said Thomas Gillogley, the graduate housing and residential services manager at Vanderbilt Hall. “Everyone understands the severity of the situation.”

All students were directed to temporarily halt going to their clinical rotations until March 22, giving clinical faculty at hospital affiliates time to devise a plan that will enable students to assist in the care of patient populations that do not have COVID-19.

In addition, students were told that the National Board of Medical Examiners will not be administering exams in March and that the United States Medical Licensing Examination Step 2 Clinical Skills testing has been temporarily suspended.

“We recognize that these are unpredictable times. You will continue to progress academically and meet your graduation requirements,” Saldaña assured students in an email.

Research ramp down

HMS Dean George Q. Daley also decided to effectively shutter HMS research laboratories by 5 p.m. on March 18.

I understand that everyone is concerned about the very real loss of research productivity,” Daley wrote in a letter to the HMS research community.

To reduce epidemic spread, we have to reduce gatherings of individuals, which we all endorse and are already practicing, and minimize the migration of individuals into and out of our community, which limits the migration of the virus. This is why we have called for the emptying of our laboratories and encourage all to pursue alternative scholarly activities in isolation,” he wrote.

Daley said that HMS would be restricting in-person access to all scientific laboratories, allowing in only those individuals essential to tasks such as replenishing liquid nitrogen or ensuring the stability of experimental materials.

The blanket laboratory ramp down also does not apply to those individuals working on research directly related to the immediate priorities of the COVID-19 pandemic, Daley said, adding that the School anticipates that access to labs will be restricted for six to eight weeks.

Requests from researchers who petition for access to labs will be reviewed and approved by a committee of department chairs in consultation with Daley.

Distance learning, remote work

Classes, conferences, workshops and symposia at the School have all been canceled or moved online. On-site operations at the Countway Library of Medicine were closed beginning March 17, with access to the building restricted to essential personnel and building tenants, with select library resources available remotely. The library has provided links to the latest published research on COVID-19.

Although many HMS student events have also been canceled, leadership is making efforts to mark some special occasions.

Saldaña told students that plans are being made for the first-ever virtual Match Day at HMS on March 20, and that the traditional ringing of the bell at noon will be livestreamed to students to signal that they may open emailed notifications from the National Resident Matching Program that will indicate where they will serve their residencies. He said that a social media account would be set up for students to share photos of their individual celebrations.

Meanwhile, a group of HMS students have responded to the crisis by forming COVID-19 volunteer response teams that will be focused on pulling together information for students about the outbreak and consolidating educational resources and guidelines for the general public.

The group is also planning to help identify protocols for HMS medical students who can assist in the response, such as through telemedicine, and they are working to identify areas outside of clinical care where medical students might be able to provide assistance, such as providing childcare support for clinical staff.

Daley called on the Quad community to work together for the greater good of all.

I ask you to act responsibly on behalf of our entire community, especially those who are most vulnerable,” he wrote. “Please work remotely and maintain distance and isolation until we have a better understanding of the course of this outbreak. We will get through this, together.”