AU alumna Dr. Sarah Neal serves as a professor in the nursing department. This year, she has taken on a special role with the university as the lead of the “COVID-19 Task Force.” She has degrees in social work, nursing and public health.
What is your role with our university?
“As Lead of the COVID task course, I handle all kinds of COVID scenarios. That’s coming up with policies and procedures and consulting with all the different campus constituents so that I can help every area on campus mitigate risk. I handle all of the isolation and quarantine for our students, faculty and staff who are either exposed or test positive. I also handle questions from parents and set up testing on campus. There’s a lot to it and I’m finding myself very busy. I need to duplicate myself!”
Where are we in the university’s COVID-19 plan and how long do you think COVID-19 will last?
“COVID is likely here to stay. In that, normally, what happens with a virus like this is that it becomes part of our normal circulation. Just like influenza comes around every year; it’s different strains that come around every year, but we have a typical cold and flu season. What we think in public health is that we’ll now have a cold, flu and COVID season. It will probably settle into some kind of seasonal tide issue like what we see with colds. In terms of phases, we’re in phase three right now, where we’re having to maintain distance and wear a mask. I foresee that being our reality at least into the spring. We don’t have a handle on it yet, but we can get a better handle on it through those actions––also when we get a vaccine, but it’s going to take several months to get widespread distribution. It’s going to take good therapeutics and wide vaccination before we can get a handle on this. My prediction is that there are many other developed countries around the world that will get there before we do because they’re more invested in community. Our American individualism is what sets us apart and does not do us a favor with the spread of this virus. Because of people just wanting to do their own thing and not being concerned for other people and not wanting to be regulated by the government.”
How do you think AU is handling the first couple of weeks being back?
“Awesome. We’re doing great. I can say that based on what I’m seeing and hearing, as far as cooperation, from all of our campus constituents. It’s this idea that we’re all in this together and we want to do the right thing so that we can stay together. Where I had anticipated getting a substantial amount of pushback from students, I’m not hearing that. Really, every person that I’ve talked to that we’ve had to put into isolation and quarantine they’re all like, ‘Okay, tell me what we need to do so that we can make sure this does not get further.’ I look at lots of different metrics. One of the metrics that I look at is our positivity rate. A positivity rate is the number of people who test positive, divided by the total number tested and then you multiply that by one-hundred. Our positivity rate is 3.5% as of last week. That was just testing athletes––those are the most high-risk on our campus in terms of exposure because of exertional breathing. The goal, nationally, is to be under 5%. We’re going to start testing more broadly on campus. The benefit of that is that we’re going to pick up on more cases that, otherwise, we wouldn’t know about. That is coming from leading from an area of strength instead of being more reactionary.”
If you could give advice to students going into quarantine, what would that piece of advice be?
“Maintain contact through Zoom with other people so that you’re not so isolated. That can be a lonely experience, especially if you’re not feeling good. That 10-14 days is a long time to not be in contact with other people. That’s one of the things that I heard from those people in the spring who had to do isolation and quarantine. They said the mental piece of if was almost just as hard as the physical piece because it was so hard to be out of contact with other people. Bring something to entertain yourself. If you like to do games, bring your gaming system with you and do what you can to maintain contact with others.”
How did you spend your quarantine?
“I am so jealous of those people who talked about having nothing to do but binge-watch things. I mean, the TV is never on in this place. I don’t have time to watch. My time in quarantine has been non-stop work. I’ve worked myself silly for 12-16 hours a day. I asked my twin sister to come from Seattle because she can do her work remotely. She showed up at my house and she ran the house taking care of the kids, laundry and food. I would have only eaten cereal three meals a day all summer long had she not been here. Here’s another thing––it’s crazy. I, a year ago, had a tornado hit my house and it dropped a huge tree on it. So, during this whole time, I have not only been doing COVID-response, but I’ve been having my home renovated. I am beside myself with fatigue. It is nuts.”
What is your favorite aspect of AU?
“The community. Hands down. I got two undergraduate degrees from AU and it was life changing for me. It was the community that did that. Not just my peers, but the faculty and staff. Those relationships were so important. Then, later in life, when I got the job to teach at AU, I was able to come back around and feel the community from a faculty perspective which has just been awesome. I love the people that I work with. We laugh a lot together and they’re my best friends. It’s like, when things are going wrong in my life, they’re the ones that hear every messy detail. I can’t say that about every place I’ve worked before. I’ve spent the last 20 years at AU and loving the community we have together here, especially the relationships I have with the students. I love 20-somethings. I’ve found that little niche of people that I really have a heart for.”
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