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Cougar Health Services steps up to meet COVID-19 challenges

Closeup of someone administering a blood pressure test.
Cougar Health Services is providing COVID-19 vaccines as well as diagnostic and travel testing this fall in addition to their regular services.

In any average year, WSU Pullman students stop by Cougar Health Services when they’re feeling sick, need to pick up prescriptions, talk a counselor or to have a routine vision screening.

Fulfilling the physical and mental health needs of nearly 20,000 students keeps CHS’ Washington Building offices bustling normally.

The past 18 months have been anything but average or routine.

COVID-19 immediately pressed CHS and its staff into action. When students returned for the Fall 2020 semester, CHS had lines of students seeking screening or diagnostic testing wrapped around the block. Their efforts were bolstered by assistance provided by Range Health and the Washington National Guard.

“We learned in a relatively short period of time how to ramp up in a surge situation,” Dr. Sunday Henry, interim director of medical services, said.

Cougs, for their part, largely did the right thing, Sunday said. Demand for screening testing was sky-high on the eve of Thanksgiving Break last fall, as students worked to reduce the spread of the disease in their local communities. Continued screening testing through the spring semester was also critical to mitigate community spread in Pullman, as prior to the availability of the vaccine, early identification of COVID-19 through screening testing was one of the most effective ways at stopping the virus.

Cougar Health Services employee walking
Cougar Health Services is providing COVID‑19 vaccines as well as diagnostic and travel testing this fall in addition to their regular services.

Once the vaccine began to roll out, WSU and CHS staff again stepped up, volunteering to use the university’s ample ultra-cold storage that’s needed to safely store vaccine supplies for community dispersal. Vaccines were given at first to those at high risk, and then to the general student population. Thousands left Pullman at the conclusion of the spring 2021 semester vaccinated against COVID-19.

After WSU opted to require the vaccine for the 2021-22 academic year, a method for collecting, verifying and storing these medical records was needed. CHS already had experience with immunization records, so stepping up to the plate for this new challenge, “seemed like a natural fit,” said Joel Schwartzkopf, its executive director.

“Instead of other campuses having to figure this out, we said we can handle the lift,” he said.

To date, more than 16,000 student vaccination cards have been uploaded and verified by CHS, in addition to hundreds of exemption requests for medical or religious reasons. More than 93% of students systemwide who’ve complied with the university’s requirement are fully vaccinated.

This fall, CHS reopened its Bustad Respiratory Care Center, a secondary site where sick patients can receive testing in an environment with enhanced negative pressure ventilation similar to what is used in hospital ICUs. CHS continues to offer both diagnostic and travel testing as well as vaccinations, in addition to its regular services.

In partnership with Incyte Diagnostics, Cougar Health has averaged about 75 diagnostic COVID-19 tests per day since the beginning of the fall 2021 semester, and has the capacity to see a little over twice that many per day during times of peak demand. PRC tests, considered the gold standard for COVID-19 detection, are turned around in under 24 hours, with results sent directly to students as well as public health officials for contact tracing purposes.

While testing is a tool at CHS’ disposal, it won’t bring about the end of the pandemic. Vaccination is key, and Cougar Health Services staff have administered more than 4,200 doses of the Pfizer vaccine.

Cougar Health Services desk
Cougar Health Services is providing COVID‑19 vaccines as well as diagnostic and travel testing this fall in addition to their regular services.

The past 18 months have put an undeniable strain on the team at Cougar Health. From doctors to nurses, therapists to office staff, everyone is feeling the strain and contending daily with burnout and fatigue, Schwartzkopf said.

“Right now, healthcare is in a tough space nationally, with physician burnout twice what it was pre-pandemic,” he said. “Fortunately, we had two new nurse practitioners start this semester, and another two physicians on the way, but the challenges for us are in the pipeline and the depth on the bench. The pandemic has put a disproportionate strain on those who have to care for sick loved ones or children, and so we have to be mindful in the ways we recruit new staff and allow for those on our team to care for their loved ones at home so they can do their best here with our patients.”

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