COOKEVILLE — Since COVID-19 reared its ugly head in the spring of 2020, the health care profession has been bombarded with challenges.
At Tennessee Tech Health Services, those challenges have come in the form of trying to keep more than 10,000 students, and approximately 1,200 faculty and staff safe and healthy during the pandemic.
“Everything we were doing a year ago has changed,” said Leigh Ann Ray, health services director. “Just from the whole procedure of how health services operates to how we provide patient care, even for non-COVID issues, has changed. We have spent the past year researching, trying to find the best practices and the best ways to provide patient care in a safe, effective manner.”
Ray, who has spent the past 26 years as a nurse practitioner, including the last 10 at Tech, says her life has changed drastically since the pandemic hit.
“My day is filled with questions and meetings, seeing patients, talking to parents and sick individuals, coordinating with the state regarding testing and managing staff,” Ray said. “I have done a lot of things this year I have never done before.”
Ray and her staff have continually helped provide quality, affordable health care at the on-campus facility. Now, she and her staff have added COVID testing and contact tracing to their regular duties.
“I have to give praise to my staff,” said Ray. “Everybody has pitched in and done things they have never been asked to do before. They are dealing with COVID every day and nobody has backed down from the challenge. Everybody has been willing to do their part and more.”
The Tech administration did its part by doubling the amount of health services staff. The extra staff handled more than 6,500 patient encounters during the fall semester and helped distribute more than 1,000 flu vaccinations.
“When I was preparing for the fall semester, I was very fearful. I didn’t know how we were going to get through it,” said assistant director Kim Williams. “I know now that integrated safety guidelines — the masking, social distancing, contact tracing — make a big dent in it. It is the only way we kept this campus on track last semester.”
Williams, who is in her seventh year at Tech, says the health services staff battles more than just a virus.
“Every day, almost hourly, things change, guidelines change, recommendations change,” said Williams. “We fight a lot of opinions and politics even though we know what is always in the best interest of the students, faculty and staff here at Tech and in the community. We have to fight all of those things as healthcare providers because we want to keep people safe.”
As a healthcare provider, Williams has had to make some personal sacrifices. With all of the COVID testing she does on a daily basis, she has limited contact with the outside world.
“I have not had anything to do with anyone outside of my household since March, including my parents who are chronically ill,” Williams explained. “I am not safe to be around, and I will not take it to someone else if I know I can prevent it. It’s a huge sacrifice we have to make as healthcare workers. It’s worth the sacrifice. I have to follow the rules and the guidelines.”
With the increased workload and sacrifices, Ray and her staff battle fatigue and stress. She says they deal with it the best they can.
“We talk about things a lot. We vent, rant and rave to each other,” said Ray. “At the end of the day it has all worked out. I have great family support or it would be tough. Health care workers, for the most part, seem to be very resilient, and it helps being able to talk to each other.”
With the emergence of the COVID vaccine, Ray is optimistic about the health of the Tech campus.
“I feel like we are in a good place. We demonstrated that in the fall,” Ray said. “I am hoping the vaccine will become more available to those who want to take it. Our students showed a lot of responsibility, and we were able to manage the positive cases and those who were exposed.”
For information regarding COVID-19 at Tennessee Tech, go to https://www.tntech.edu/covid19/index.php.