The 2020-21 year at PLNU was no doubt unlike any other. COVID-19 changed the way institutions of higher education go about many different aspects of university life. To face the challenges of COVID and protect the community, PLNU created a new medical task force.

Monique Sawyer, an associate professor at PLNU who teaches public health nursing, and also a leader of PLNU’s health education program and COVID testing and collection task force, is proud of the way PLNU has come together over this past year, saying, “We have been able to accomplish some pretty incredible feats in regards to the health and safety of our campus [community] with our cross-discipline collaboration and the coordination of hundreds of students.” 

In addition to creating educational material for the students, like developing the COVID canvas course, Sawyer also coordinated with a broad array of campus faculty, staff, and students to develop signage and logos, and organize the COVID testing and wellness center appointments. 

Sawyer was adamant about the fact that every department at PLNU was very willing to work together to accomplish what needed to be done. 

“The most rewarding part was the relationships that we built across disciplines and departments … because some of us would never have worked together if it weren’t for COVID.”

Working with people one may not have otherwise been able to is often enlightening, and for the PLNU medical COVID task force, this cross-disciplinary collaboration and ability to learn from others’ expertise was an opportunity to serve a greater number of individuals. 

Monique Sawyer talks with a PLNU employee.
For Monique Sawyer (right), being part of a cross-campus team was exciting despite the challenges in front of them to solve.

Sawyer also commented on the fact that, with the influx of ever-changing information about COVID, there was this constant excitement of exchanging information and updating each other on the latest research.

“Everybody was learning from everybody. It was just a super exciting thing to be a part of.” 

When asked about the challenges faced as a member of the COVID medical task force, Sawyer noted it was initially difficult to figure out everyone’s roles and how each individual and team was going to work together in order to create a cohesive task force that would run effectively and efficiently to keep everyone safe. 

“There were so many moving parts that it was hard to coordinate at first, especially because all the separate disciplines had never worked together like this on such a large scale,” Sawyer said.

The constant changing of guidelines and lack of precedent were additional speed bumps that Sawyer and her team adapted to. The task force leads sat through countless county and state meetings in hopes of gaining insight and instruction, but oftentimes they only received guidance for K-12 institutions and nothing about institutions for higher education, which continued to leave the task force with little to no direction from the county or state.

“We were figuring it out as we went,” Sawyer said. “There were just so many different aspects that made the situation and decision-making process really complex and difficult because we all just wanted to make the best choice to keep everyone safe.”

Sawyer prefaced that Jen King, associate professor of public health at PLNU and lead of PLNU’s vaccination decisions, saw more direct pushback about COVID and vaccination guidelines, and Sawyer herself was more of a secondhand source, but every decision regarding the COVID guidelines and vaccination updates was extremely intricate with what nearby schools were doing. Furthermore, PLNU being a school with such a large nursing program made their decision-making process even more complex since many clinical agencies where PLNU sends students for clinicals require the vaccine. 

Writing so many new policies and trying to appease the greatest amount of people possible is undoubtedly a complicated and difficult situation to navigate, but Sawyer had a positive outlook on the way PLNU’s medical COVID task force handled it. “I’m so proud of Point Loma knowing that nothing was taken lightly,” she said. “There was always so much dialogue that went into it and trying to respect a variety of perspectives, taking into account all the different communication that we got from students and families.”  

“There were just so many different aspects that made the situation and decision-making process really complex and difficult because we all just wanted to make the best choice to keep everyone safe.”

Sawyer felt the medical COVID task force were sometimes perceived as the ‘bad guys’ on campus, having to enforce strict safety rules and guidelines. However, she noted everything they’ve had to do like placing students in quarantine and mandating complex rules were done with due diligence to keep as many people as safe as possible and prevent outbreaks that could put people in danger, rather than just keeping students from having fun.

In addition to faculty and staff, the medical COVID task force also created an opportunity to include many undergrad and grad students to run testing, administer vaccines, and organize COVID-safe activities.

Seeing all the cross-disciplinary collaboration between faculty and students was remarkable, Sawy said, and led the task force to, “recognize how much expertise we have across campus and how we can really utilize that in the future to rethink the way we can deliver healthcare on campus …”

At the end of the academic year, the medical COVID task force held an event to recognize all their hard work. It was actually the first time most of the team was all together in person, which Sawyer noted was an odd yet incredible experience after seeing them all exclusively through a screen for so much of the previous year. 

Some of the nursing students working at the wellness center had put together superlatives for the task force members, with one student even making miniature Oscars trophies and another student making masks with Oscars emblems on them as well. Seeing everyone in person for the first time and interacting so positively with one another helped Sawyer see just how close they all became, even from the other side of computer screens.

“We developed such a deep bond from all that we endured with each other,” she said. “I’ll think about it for the rest of my career, the gifts that came from this experience.” 

Sawyer was also proud of the extensive and capable contact tracing PLNU was able to exhibit.

“It’s typical for the county to be in charge of COVID contact tracing, but PLNU took over contact tracing for its own community from the start,” said Sawyer, “and it helped us have a much quicker turnaround than if we had to wait for the county because of the sheer amount of people they are testing.”

Staying on top of things through contact tracing helped catch positive cases before people’s symptoms developed, meaning COVID was less likely to spread rapidly. 

PLNU students administer a COVID test.

A main component of making the contact tracing so efficient was the fact that PLNU has a local (in-house) testing program, meaning rather than sending samples to an outside source for testing, the team can simply transfer them to a bio-lab turned COVID testing center. The locality of the entire process helps PLNU have an impressively fast turnaround rate, making it easier for the medical COVID task force to catch cases early and shut down outbreaks before they can happen. 

The success and safety PLNU exhibited — and the low rate of COVID cases on campus — was by no means a fluke, but rather a culmination of dedication, collaboration, and capabilities of passionate individuals set on keeping PLNU open and safe for all. 

“Because of COVID and everything that’s come along with it, we’re starting to involve students more,” Sawyer said, “and now we’re hiring students and graduates to work in the wellness center, which is something that hasn’t occurred since I’ve been working here … We’re expanding and now it’s a cool place for students to learn on their own campus and then serve their own peers.”

“We’re expanding and now it’s a cool place for students to learn on their own campus and then serve their own peers.”

When asked about the challenges, successes, and new establishments of the medical COVID task force, Sawyer looked at it as a “catalyst to move in a direction of rethinking the way we provide health services on campus.” 

Collaboration and expertise across so many different disciplines are some of the primary reasons why PLNU was able to maintain such a welcoming and open community during this complicated time. Instead of pushing people apart, working through the challenges of COVID-19 helped bring the PLNU community closer together through a mutual desire to protect and care for one another.

Individuals Involved in the Medical COVID Task Force: 

  • Kristopher J. Koudelka, Ph.D. and Dawne M. Page, Ph.D. — Biology Professors — Ran the COVID-19 lab on campus.
  • Jen King, DNP, RN, CNS and Monique Sawyer, DNP, RN, PMHNP-BC  — Associate Professors and Associate Deans of Nursing — Dr. King was Director of COVID-19 operations in the Wellness Center. Dr. Sawyer oversaw the COVID testing clinic and health education for the Point Loma campus.
  • Shawna Baker, M.S., ATC  — Head Athletic Trainer — Oversaw Athletics COVID Testing
  • Jake Gilbertson — Dean of Students and Director of Residential Life
  • Jill Monroe — Director of Public Affairs
  • Kayleigh Hofer — Assistant Director of Residential Life, Resident Director, Flex Housing
  • Charles Hardison, MD — Physician in Wellness Center
  • Kristen Kellogg, NP, and Rachel Hyden, NP — Nurse practitioners in Wellness Center
  • Johnny Gomez RN, Liz Myatt, RN, and Karen Ochoa-Flores — Nurses 
  • Samara Timms, SPHR — Associate Vice President for Human Resources
  • Tyler Maskiewicz — Data Systems Engineer
  • Marsha Hubbard — Resident Director of Colony Apartments and Coordinator of Residential Life

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Jessie Taylor is a PLNU alum. She is a double major in Writing and Literature. She loves being able to share people's stories on the Viewpoint.