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Reflections from a Pandemic by Lynn Fisher, APSU’s Director of Emergency Management

Austin Peay State University - APSUClarksville, TN – When I arrived in Clarksville in May 2020 from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to be the first director of emergency management in the Austin Peay State University (APSU) Public Safety Division, I was expecting the worst.

I came from the sixth-largest city that was in lockdown.

Lynn Fisher
Lynn Fisher

When I did my first Walmart run, there wasn’t anyone wearing masks. I was scared. How would we ever get to in-person classes if we didn’t wear masks in public?

My job as an emergency manager is to respond to disasters. In Philadelphia, I was part of the response to a refinery explosion, Amtrak train derailment, and many, many apartment fires.

See, my job is to write the plans and guide the decision-makers (mayors, police chiefs, and elected officials) through the problem-solving part of a disaster. I also coordinate recovery efforts with non-profit helper agencies and teach and train people before disasters strike.

Think of it like a stage manager. I make sure that everyone has a script (plan), the stage is ready and everyone can communicate. I never get a say in what play we are doing or which actors will show up. I just have to be ready to go with advice, a strong voice, and lots of kindness.

Coming out of a big city I knew the problems would be the same just on a smaller scale. What I found was the COVID-19 Task Force, a small group of dedicated leadership, faculty, and staff that were the key decision-makers for the many issues facing the University and the greater community.

Like all other higher education institutions across the state, we came up with our own guidelines and protections we were comfortable with to protect not just Austin Peay but the larger Clarksville community. We instituted a mask mandate in all campus buildings in early May and worked to build thresholds for making decisions as this pandemic changes.

After a spring at home and a summer rearranging classrooms, developing support for students who must be in class for accreditation or certification purposes, and building excellent remote learning platforms, we opened our doors in August. We launched aggressive test and trace tactics, encouraging everyone to complete daily health screenings and scan QR codes ‘into’ a space for tracing if necessary. We encouraged everyone to stay home if sick and complete a COVID reporting form to track and trace. Our goal is to get back to traditional face-to-face learning by Fall 2021.

By December we were shocked by our results. Austin Peay drastically outperformed every other public higher education institution in Tennessee, in terms of positive coronavirus cases. Our highest single-day case count between August 24th and December 1st was 43, which is amazing because we had several thousand people on campus every day.

 


 

This speaks to the dedication the COVID-19 Task Force has to contain COVID-19 Coronavirus on campus. As we enter the spring term, we continue to meet every day as a command group and work out issues across campus to make sure we are able to support those who are sick and keep everyone else healthy.

Without those daily meetings, we would not have recognized the importance of opening our own testing lab to take the pressure off Montgomery County testing operations. Typically our lab covers about 20 percent of the tests completed in Montgomery County every day.

We also found that we have expertise and energetic Governors that are rising to the challenge of opening a vaccine site to support the Montgomery County Health Department efforts. We are the first higher education institution in the state approved to work directly with a health department to support the public efforts.

I am proud that Austin Peay has risen to the challenge so many times during this pandemic, and I really believe we have saved lives in the process. To me, it makes all the troublesome days worth it.

 

Lynn Fisher, APSU’s first Director of Emergency Management, provided this commentary, looking back on a year of battling COVID-19 Coronavirus on campus.

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