Centenary prioritizes vaccine education and access in fight against COVID-19

Shimirimana Eliya

SHREVEPORT, LA — On the morning of March 26, Shimirimana Eliya made history in Centenary’s Student Union Building. Eliya, a senior biology major from Fort Worth, Texas, was the first person to receive the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at Centenary’s on-campus vaccination clinic organized through a partnership with Relief Health. Centenary Dean of Students Mark Miller snapped a photo soon afterward for social media, documenting a simple yet extraordinary moment: Eliya sits at a table bathed in morning light, the right sleeve of his Centenary Soccer t-shirt rolled up to reveal an adhesive bandage marking the site of the vaccine injection. His face is masked, but it’s impossible to miss the smile in his eyes.

Medical experts in the United States and around the world are unified in their belief that the rapidly-developed COVID-19 vaccines, along with continued public safety measures such as mask usage and social distancing, represent the “way out” of the global pandemic and a path toward normalcy. For college students like Eliya, who saw the on-campus experience turned on its head around this time last year, any steps toward normalcy are welcome progress. Centenary students, along with their peers across the country, have experienced the 2020-2021 academic year amidst a list of regulations designed to keep the entire campus community safe but also bringing the reality of diminished personal contact; canceled or postponed athletic, cultural, and social events; and permanently fogged eyeglasses.

So the moment – a quick jab in the arm – was simple; the projected effect, extraordinary. By the end of the day, 119 more Centenary students, faculty, and staff had received their first vaccine doses and were scheduled for their second doses in late April, just in time to enjoy the College’s planned commencement celebration for the classes of 2020 and 2021 on Saturday, May 8.

Prioritizing vaccine access and education

Centenary’s administration began planning for a possible on-campus vaccine event months ago, when it became clear that the fast-track vaccines would become available in the new year. Centenary has been in communication with officials at the regional and state health department, the Board of Regents, and the Louisiana Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (LAICU) since not long after the pandemic began. When an opportunity to apply to become a vaccine distribution site came available, Centenary was one of the first colleges in the state to submit an application.

“It seemed like a longshot at the time, as vaccine wasn’t being distributed yet and we would need to develop new capacities to make it happen,” explained Miller. “Centenary provides medical care for students through a number of partners, but neither our sports medicine staff or our health information office on campus had the capacity to deliver a mass vaccination event. We pursued a number of alternatives, including working with other community health organizations and working with temporary staffing agencies, but settled on a partnership with Relief Health. We and another local college already partner with them to provide testing, and since Relief Health is already working with a number of pharmacy chains to help them deliver vaccinations their expertise was a good match for our needs.”

The CDC and the Louisiana Department of Health approved Centenary’s application, but as one of thousands of sites hoping to help distribute vaccine. On Monday, March 22, the first day that higher education employees were added by Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards to the list of essential workers who are eligible to be vaccinated for COVID, Centenary got the news that its request for vaccine had been granted and vials of Moderna were on the way.

“We have a highly residential campus where close personal relationships among students, faculty and staff are part of our campus culture,” said Miller. “Initially the approval process seemed like a lot of work with no guarantee of success, but given the importance of vaccinations in resuming more usual interactions and keeping each other safe we knew this was something we wanted to pursue. We have scheduled a follow-up vaccination event for next week when all of our students will be eligible for vaccination.”

The College also embraced its role as an educational leader in the Shreveport-Bossier City community when it organized an expert panel on vaccine “myths and facts” in January 2021, as the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines began to be available to specific segments of the population in Louisiana. Centenary president Dr. Christopher L. Holoman moderated the panel that included Centenary biology professor and alumna Dr. Becki Murphy alongside Dr. Joseph Bocchini, a pediatric infectious disease specialist with Willis-Knighton Medical Center, and Dr. Patrick Massey, orthopedics and sports medicine specialist at Ochsner LSU Health Shreveport.

“We always want to serve as a resource for our community, and the vaccine panel is just one of Centenary’s many efforts to provide useful outreach programming,” said Dr. Karen Soul, provost and dean of the College at Centenary. “We are grateful to Dr. Bocchini and Dr. Massey for their ongoing partnership with Centenary and proud of Dr. Murphy for her leadership and expertise. We look forward to continuing this kind of community outreach and are pleased that we will begin welcoming community members back to campus next month. Our students, faculty, and staff have and continue to take health precautions, such as mask wearing, to protect all our community members.”

Controlling COVID on campus

The College’s experience throughout the pandemic helped administrators understand that community education and buy-in would be essential to a widespread positive response to vaccine availability, just as it had been when Centenary brought students back to campus in August 2020 with a universal mask mandate, socially-distanced and creatively-imagined classrooms, a temporary ban on athletic competition, restrictions on musical performances, rules about gathering indoors, and strict COVID-19 testing protocols for student groups deemed to be high risk. Although COVID-19 was not absent at the College, and even presented some predictable spikes after the long winter holiday and an unexpected closure due to severe winter weather in February, Centenary’s small size ultimately created many advantages in the project of controlling the virus on campus.

Beginning in March 2020, a group of faculty, staff, and administrators from across the College began meeting on a regular basis – at first every day, and eventually twice a week – to wrestle with COVID’s implications for academics, student life, athletics, performing arts, residence life, food service, mental health, IT and facilities needs, student recruitment and financial aid, and a host of other facets of the “normal” college experience. Discussions in this group led directly to Centenary’s decision to invest personnel and resources in a robust contact tracing program that helped the College quickly track and quarantine close contacts after positive cases were detected through on-campus testing or self-reported to Centenary’s Health Information Office.

“I think we recognized early on that contact tracing was something we could do really well that would be highly effective in containing the spread of COVID-19 on campus, so we prioritized that,” said Centenary president Christopher Holoman. “One of the advantages of Centenary’s small size has always been the close, trusting relationships that develop across the community, and that existing level of trust was crucial in creating and sustaining our contact tracing efforts. Our students did an excellent job complying with all of the restrictions placed on them in quarantine and have done their part to keep the community safe throughout the year.”

Centenary gave students the option to quarantine or isolate at home, in a private room on campus, or in houses owned by the College, with meal service and health check-ins and resources provided throughout the quarantine period. During the fall semester, the College also launched CentenaryCare, a free 24/7 telehealth service for students providing medical and mental health consultation and scheduled appointments, including the TalkNow service with immediate support from licensed mental health professionals.

“The pandemic has taken a toll on people mentally as well as physically,” said Tina Feldt, director of counseling and disability services at Centenary. “Between isolation, not seeing loved ones, loss and grief, stress, and worrying about the future, there are many layers of challenges for our students to deal with. CentenaryCare has been an important resource for our students this year and will continue to be so in the future.”

Eyes on the future

Nothing has been easy for Centenary students this year, but many have found motivation in the promise of a return to their activities and interests.

“The Athletic Department took the attitude that COVID-19 mitigations that were designed to slow the spread would allow for competition during the 2020-2021 academic year,” said David Orr, interim director of athletics and recreation. “Actions such as mask wearing, social distancing, the creation of small, functional workout groups, and weekly testing from the day student-athletes stepped on campus in the fall and spring semesters allowed student-athletes, coaches, and athletic staff members to build a standard of expectations under the new ‘normal’ of operating and competing in a pandemic. These efforts were rewarded when the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference announced that we could move forward with competition in the spring 2021 semester, and all sports programs were given the opportunity to compete this year.”

Centenary was able to establish strong partnerships with Ochsner-LSU and Relief Health to ensure regular COVID-19 testing for all Centenary student-athletes, coaching staff, game day personnel, and game officials. Students involved in choir and theatre also followed a strict testing regimen and enhanced safety protocols to allow them to continue training and rehearsing, with the motivating prospect of public performances on the horizon. An outdoor concert by the Centenary Wind Ensemble in November 2020 provided a glimmer of hope for the future. With community case numbers dropping and vaccines now available to all Louisiana residents over the age of 16, the College’s April 2021 calendar now includes the return of two of its most beloved musical traditions, the Easter Sunrise Service and the Centenary College Choir’s “Rhapsody in View.”

The road to this point was difficult for both students and faculty at Centenary’s Hurley School of Music.

“Based on our research heading into the fall semester, the increased risk concerns related to singing and wind instrument playing presented challenges for the larger ensembles,” explained Dr. David Hobson, director of the Centenary College Choir. “We determined there were several key factors that combine in a multiplicative way to reduce risk: masks, social distancing, large rooms with high ceilings, upgraded HVAC filtration systems, and limited time exposure. We augmented these features further by using a staggered formation to increase distancing for each singers’ air flow, rehearsing in small groups and sectionals led by student directors, and incorporating non-wind based musical activities, which also included playing Boomwhackers and handbells. Early on, we also practiced using neutral syllables, such as doo, and used humming to reduce large droplet spread. Over time, as confidence grew in these procedures, the Choir was able to slowly move toward having more regular full rehearsals.”

Keeping morale high has been challenging under these circumstances, especially for a group that, as Hobson puts it, “really thrives with live audiences and embraces its role as a ‘musical ambassador’ for the College.”

“Despite the more limited schedule, we’ve talked intentionally about how this year will be one of the most important years in the history of the Choir, even if it’s far less glamorous than others,” said Hobson. “Every Centenary Choir takes the baton from the previous Choir and hands off to the next as part of our tradition - this has been the most difficult and heaviest baton ever. But, they are doing it, and I couldn’t be more proud. And we are so grateful that the College will be able to open up a bit here at the end, even with the still necessary precautions, and allow for two meaningful and final performances for this year’s Choir. It not only rewards the sacrifices I’ve described, and the patience required, but will allow us to end the year on a proverbial ‘high note’ and propel us into the next.”

“A leap of faith”

After more than a year of sacrifice and adjustment, Centenary’s March 26 vaccine clinic represented an important step forward for the entire College community. With music in the air, athletic teams energized by both pure competition and measurable success, and two commencements to celebrate, there are many sets of eyes smiling out over the masks that are still, for now, part of the “new normal.”

Shimirimana Eliya is proud to be the first person to have been vaccinated at Centenary’s vaccine clinic.

“It is all thanks to the hard work and effort of scientists, researchers, and Centenary staff members to make this possible,” said Eliya. “I am one of many who got vaccinated and we appreciate the opportunity to be among those who are combatting this disease. I encourage those who are able to take a leap of faith and get vaccinated in an effort to reach herd immunity and hinder this pandemic from taking lives that should not have been lost.”


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