Feb 12, 2021 | NEWS | By Esteban Candelaria, Lorea Zabaleta, Cameron Howell, and Bailey Burrows | Illustration by Daniel de Koning

This report originally appeared in the CC COVID-19 Reporting Project, a twice-weekly newsletter partnered with The Catalyst that covers the pandemic’s effect on higher education. For more COVID updates delivered straight to your inbox by CC student-journalists, be sure to subscribe to the newsletter here.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, many institutions of higher education were unprepared to tackle the coronavirus and virtual learning. Playbooks for how schools should handle the pandemic were scarce, and conditions worsened as many local health departments were overwhelmed by cases and abrupt closures.

But when rising local cases of COVID-19 forced schools to send most of their students home last March, Colorado College, Pikes Peak Community College, the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, the U.S. Air Force Academy, and El Paso County Public Health began meeting every week to share strategies related to virus mitigation.

Maggie Santos, CC’s COVID-19 Emergency Manager and the Director of Campus Safety, said the meetings have mostly been about making sure the schools and the health department are working together so that “none of us are starting from scratch.”

“If one of us is doing something, we share the information so nobody’s struggling,” Santos told The CC COVID-19 Reporting Project. “We want to make sure that everybody’s successful in dealing with COVID.”

Stephanie Hanenberg, UCCS’ Assistant Vice Chancellor for Health and Wellness, wrote in an email statement to The CC COVID-19 Reporting Project that the meetings with the other colleges and the health department have been invaluable for support and for discussion about best practices for mitigating the pandemic.

As the pandemic has evolved, the schools have met on a variety of issues, ranging from testing strategies to quarantine protocols. Still, Santos said, each institution is different, and each ultimately makes its own decisions on what best serve the school.

But as vaccine production for public usage ramps up across the country, and those in education grow closer to next on the list, schools like CC and UCCS have been shifting some of their focus to a distribution plan. 

What is the plan? 

As Colorado moves deeper into Phase 1B of its vaccine distribution plan, which includes K-12 educators, the question has surfaced in the weekly meetings whether colleges can help with administering vaccines. 

Aaron Hueser, the Emergency Preparedness & Response Coordinator for El Paso County Public Health, has been strategizing with the colleges on how they might become points of distribution for the vaccine, which are institutions that agree to help health departments with vaccine rollout through memorandums of understanding (MOUs).

“We’ve got greater than 20 MOUs in different places,” Hueser told The CC COVID-19 Reporting Project. “Some of them are businesses, usually really large businesses, and then also with many of the schools.” 

Santos said that CC has had an MOU with El Paso County Public Health since “about 2016,” when mumps outbreaks alarmed health care providers throughout Colorado. She added that UCCS is also among the schools that established an MOU with the county. 

Santos said that for CC, the talks about the vaccine are still in early stages — mostly to determine whether the college has the resources and personnel to become a point of distribution — and that she didn’t know if or when CC might be asked to become one. 

“There’s no real commitment, as much as we said, ‘call us if it’s possible, and we will see if we can do it,’” Santos said.

Whether CC can become a point of distribution seems to depend on vaccine availability. Given the current pace of local vaccination, Hueser said that El Paso County Public Health has continued to tell people that the general public, which is the category that most of CC’s population will fall in, will likely begin to receive the vaccine in the summer. Still, he was hopeful that the approval of upcoming vaccines could boost that timeline.  

“We’ve got a couple of vaccines that potentially could get approval in the next couple of months,” Hueser said. “And if that takes place, I think we can maybe even start speeding up what we thought we were going to be able to do.”

Where do we fall in line, and when? 

Hueser believes vaccine distribution for staff and faculty in higher education institutions will likely fall in tiers. With essential workers like custodians and food service employees up next in Colorado’s vaccine distribution plan, Hueser said that he anticipated educators who don’t already satisfy criteria for vaccination would be in the same tier as students living in congregate settings on campus. Students living off-campus would be vaccinated in the tier that followed, and Hueser added that it would likely be March before the college could start vaccinating essential workers. 

Santos said the college is in the process of identifying those that fall in that first tier, and that certain groups of employees that have already qualified for vaccination per Colorado’s distribution plan have already been given opportunities to become immunized. Medical workers at the Student Health Center, along with Campus Safety, who are responsible for the transportation of individuals that test positive for the virus, are among the employees that have already qualified to receive the vaccine. 

Still, CC and its peer institutions in the Colorado Springs area look forward to the day that everyone in their schools’ populations can receive the vaccine, which Hanenberg said was essential to achieving herd immunity and UCCS’ main goal of having more and more students on campus. 

The only way the county could accomplish that is with help from the community, such as Colorado Springs institutions of higher education collaborating, Hueser explained.

“One of the big things that I’ve learned in the last 15 months or so being in public health is that nothing that public health does is done exclusively by public health,” Hueser said. “If we don’t have the community behind us, it won’t work.”

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