Flexibility, adaptability and kindness.
These words were a motto to Helen Luce, D.O., and her team in UW-Stevens Point Student Health Service for the past two years. They dispensed large doses of each.
Five months after Dr. Luce became medical director of the Health Service, a novel coronavirus appeared that changed the world.
Everyone has navigated challenges during what became a pandemic. Dr. Luce was a leader on the team that guided UW-Stevens Point through it.
She and the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) members monitored early cases of disease, first overseas, then in the United States and into Wisconsin by March 2020. Case numbers and deaths grew quickly as the virus spread closer to home. Within weeks, UW leaders were discussing not bringing students back to campus after spring break.
“It was intense and scary,” Dr. Luce said. “This was new to all of us. How do we keep students and employees safe?”
Dr. Luce learned all she could about COVID-19 from various public health sources so she could advise campus leaders. She and EOC Manager Corinna Neeb consulted with state and county public health officials, explored how other universities were responding and met with UW-Stevens Point leaders to determine what actions were needed to protect students, faculty and staff.
“It was a team effort on campus and with our external partners. We had amazing support from our administrators to help me and my team,” Dr. Luce said.
New information came daily as concerns heightened. The decision to have students complete their spring 2020 semester from home disrupted many. Students packed up belongings in residence halls, and faculty had two weeks to modify teaching modalities. Events and activities were canceled, commencement was postponed.
In summer, when many employees worked remotely, Dr. Luce was closely involved in determining how the College of Natural Resources could safely offer the summer field experience. With students grouped in small pods, this applied learning was safe and successful – and a lot of work.
Plans to return to campus in fall 2020 with in-person and online classes required heightened precautions. Following CDC and state health guidance, Dr. Luce was key to adopting daily symptom screening, wearing face coverings and determining physical distancing and capacity limits in classrooms.
To detect cases early and reduce the risk of spread, students in residence halls were required to have antigen testing every two weeks. Two weeks before the semester started Dr. Luce learned her department would be responsible for these screening tests, as well as tests for those with COVID-19 symptoms.
It was a stressful semester for everyone. The added precautions were necessary — and added work for front line employees: Health Service staff conducted testing, Dining delivered meals to students in isolation or quarantine, Dean of Students office managed student COVID-19 cases on campus, and Facilities staff increased cleaning protocols daily.
It was also a time of great collaboration and creativity, she said. Chemistry faculty and staff developed hand sanitizer. With help from IT and 3-D printers, Facilities staff created face shields. “It’s not part of their jobs, but they did it because it needed to be done,” she said.
Unlike several universities or residence halls that closed temporarily during COVID-19, UW-Stevens Point remained open. “I’m so proud that we never had to shut down,” Dr. Luce said. “I do feel like we really did a good job of not having a massive outbreak.”
When vaccines became available, Dr. Luce and her team were called on to provide them, first to students, then to coordinate vaccine clinics for employees, too. Her student staff, as well as nursing students on campus, gave vaccines and learned to do antigen testing swabs.
Student athletes were great role models in getting tested and vaccinated, she said.
Calling the response of everyone at UW-Stevens Point’s to the pandemic remarkable, Athletic Director Brad Duckworth said: “There has been no one who has been more willing to go above and beyond the call of duty than Dr. Luce. (She) has been the biggest student athlete advocate we have had. There are 600 student athletes on 21 teams that are back doing what they love, staying in school, and attending in person largely because of Dr. Luce’s efforts.”
His comments came in a letter recommending her for the Academic Staff Excellence Award, which she won in 2021. The award recognizes a staff member for outstanding achievement, initiative, creativity, personal interaction and performance.
She is also UW-Stevens Point’s nominee for the UW System Regents award this spring.
Neeb nominated Dr. Luce for the award, acknowledging her leadership, insight and calming presence. “Her devotion to the students is unwavering,” Neeb said. “Helen has helped us through these uncertain times, providing clear medical recommendations, navigation through guidance from CDC, Wisconsin Department of Health services and local health departments.”
In creating the motto for their year – adaptability, flexibility, kindness – Dr. Luce led by example, say two of her staff who also nominated her for the award. “As a leader, she encouraged and entrusted all the staff at SHS to expand our roles and perform new and additional functions,” wrote Pharmacist Jon Sambs and Nurse Practitioner Rita Thomas. “During these difficult and unprecedented times, she has worked diligently to prioritize our continued efforts to champion student health and success.”
“I am so proud of the whole team,” Dr. Luce said. “One thing that got me through this is those relationships. I’m not alone.
“It’s made us a stronger campus. It’s made us a stronger community,” she said. “Collaboration is the key to go forward — with adaptability and kindness.”