Coming Together Amidst COVID-19: The Tufts Community Response

Despite the uncertainty and stress this pandemic has caused, communities around the world have been brought together in proactive and creative efforts to help fill in the gaps caused by the pandemic. The Tufts community is no exception. In what President Monaco describes as a “Dunkirk moment,” Tufts students, staff, and the administration are working together to alleviate pressure on the local health care system and to support the needs of the Greater Boston community as they respond to COVID-19. The administration, alongside students and faculty from the Fletcher school, coordinated an effort to turn parts of the Medford campus into a military style hospital, providing alternative testing sites and housing for patients, medical personnel, and first responders. At the same time, student-led efforts have combined the expertise and manpower of Tufts graduate and undergraduate schools to accomplish everything from coordinating volunteer networks to creating prototypes to repair medical masks.

For many Tufts students, leaving campus on such short notice became a stressful experience. As TCU Treasurer Sharif Hamidi said in an email to the Observer, “A significant number of students felt abandoned in the middle of a crisis, with less than a week to fully pack their belongings and leave campus entirely.” Luckily, this stressful situation did have some positive consequences. 

As the majority of students have left campus, the abundance of empty dorms can be used to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 for healthcare providers and patients to reduce the strain on hospitals. As Hamidi noted, “This course of action at least achieves some good in a deeply flawed situation.”

Regarding the choice to transition campus to a military style hospital, President Monaco expressed in his email to the school that it “is not only our civic obligation but also an important way for us to help minimize the spread of the virus.” To accommodate both the needs of patients and medical personnel, while still ensuring the protection of on-campus students, staff, and faculty, the administration decided to split campus into uphill and downhill zones. The administration enlisted help from medical professionals alongside Fletcher students and faculty for operations and communications advice to successfully segment campus into two zones.

Staff, faculty, and about 150 students have been housed and fed downhill. To protect students, campus facilities have increased disinfections of high touch points and instituted a daily deep clean of the dining halls. For the safety of the on-campus staff, shifts have been adjusted to ensure minimal contact and laundry rooms have been made available to avoid bringing potentially infected clothes home. Lastly, the administration explained that members of the Tufts community remaining on campus will be at no additional risk as patients and hospital staff only have access to the building they are housed in. 

Uphill, the administration has made a total 1600 beds available for the community. However, due to isolation protocols it is unlikely that all of them will be used. Patrick Collins, Tufts’ Executive Director of public relations, told the Observer that Tufts is working with “two major healthcare providers, Tufts Medical Center and Cambridge Health Alliance, and two of our host cities (Medford and Somerville) to utilize the university’s and health care providers’ resources to complement the efforts of local governments.” Tufts has identified four groups to which they would provide housing. To free up hospital beds and keep at risk members of rehabilitation centers—such as elderly patients—safe, non-critical and recovering COVID-19 patients will be housed in Miller Hall. First responders and medical personnel who cannot go home because they are waiting to receive test results, have already tested positive, or have family members from high risk populations, will be able to live in Hillside apartments or CoHo. Bush is available for Tufts staff members who don’t feel comfortable going home because they were exposed to COVID-19 or have at-risk family members. Lastly, Tufts Medical Center personnel in need of temporary housing can live on the Boston Health Sciences Campus. 

Currently, medical personnel have been housed on the Boston Health Sciences campus, but Collins did relay that the “number varies from day to day but is usually in the single digits. The medical workers are healthy but are using the overnight lodging at Posner due to their concern for family members, loved ones, or roommates.”

Regarding the transition, Anna, a student currently living on the Medford campus, told the Observer that she feels safe on campus and that “it seems like the separate zones plan is working.” When she first heard about the administration plan her initial reaction was “a mixture of panic and fear” as she didn’t know how the process of transitioning campus would affect her own safety. Moreover, she felt frustrated that the administration hadn’t consulted her or fellow students living on-campus about the decision. The feeling of fear and frustration diminished after the administration sent out an email informing the students about what the transition would look like and assuring them that “no arrangements have been made without first confirming that the health of our students remains safeguarded and uncompromised.” As patients and first responders begin to move into campus, Anna notes that apart from avoiding going uphill she hasn’t experienced any adverse impacts or drastic changes on campus. Overall, she thinks that the initiative is a good thing, saying, “In a time like this, we need to put our own priorities and differences aside to help each other get through all this craziness.”

Both Somerville and Medford’s mayors have expressed their gratitude to Tufts. Medford Mayor Breanna Lungo-Koehn told Tufts Now that for health workers preparing for the coming surge of patients “having a safe, clean, and stable place to rest without fear of spreading the disease to family members and the general community is essential.” Additionally, Tufts Now reported that Somerville Mayor Curtatone hopes that “what Tufts is doing here becomes a model for college campuses across the state, region, and country.”

Similarly, in various interviews, communications emails, and articles, President Monaco has been pushing for other colleges and universities to take similar measures. In a school wide email, he said, “I feel strongly that Tufts and other universities, particularly research universities, have an abundance of resources to offer our community and healthcare partners in their fight against this unprecedented and rapidly changing challenge.” In an email to the Observer, Collins said that “Other colleges and universities in the Greater Boston area are making similar arrangements with nonprofit organizations, city and state agencies.” Following suit, various colleges across the country have been volunteering their buildings and medical students to help the cause. Some universities, like Columbia and NYU, have even gone so far as to graduate some of their medical students early.

The administration is not the only member of the Tufts community hard at work to help our host communities through the pandemic. In a student-run effort, Tufts students and faculty from both undergraduate and graduate programs worked together with graduate students from MIT and Harvard to repair donated protective gear. After discovering that the elastic bands on masks donated to the Tufts Medical Center were badly damaged, Military Fellows from the Fletcher School coordinated an effort to crowdsource prototypes and to repair the bands without damaging the masks. After harnessing engineering expertise from Harvard and MIT, the effort produced viable prototypes in no time. Using a space in the Tufts School of Dental Medicine, engineering students from Tufts along with graduate students from MIT and Harvard worked together to refine the prototypes. 

Two days later, around 20 volunteers from Fletcher, the Tufts Engineering School, Harvard, and MIT used the NOLOP makerspace at Tufts to repair thousands of masks. In a Tufts Now article, one of the volunteers, James Aronson, who is a recent graduate of the Tufts School of Engineering, explained that they all “recognize[d] that this is an opportunity to make a real, measurable difference.” Every step of the way, the volunteers documented their progress, methods, and materials, which they hope can be used as a starting point for similar projects elsewhere. By combining their expertise, volunteers from different schools within Tufts and within Boston managed to repair the masks for the Medical Center while also providing a roadmap for others across the country and the globe to do the same.

Similarly, a volunteer collective called Collect2Protect Healthcare Heroes, which was founded by a Tufts dental student in conjunction with Tisch College, has produced almost a thousand face masks and shields for Boston area health-care facilities. After the School of Dental Medicine postponed clinical and preclinical training, Stephanie Smith realized that the additional free time could be put towards solving the shortage of face masks for health-care workers. Right now, almost a hundred volunteers have signed on to the project, who beyond contributing their time and skills have also found creative solutions to an increasing shortage of fabric and elastic. Along with Smith, several dental students have been coordinating the production, collection, and distribution of the protective gear. Nancy Marks, the Tisch and Tufts Dental School Community Service Coordinator, told the Observer that the protective gear is going toward the nurses, patients, and cleaners in hospitals and services providing care to the homeless, the disabled, and the elderly. Additionally, the gear is being sent to those working at “various assisted living facilities, laundromats, grocery stores, [and] pharmacies.” Collect2Protect Healthcare Heroes is housed under the larger network of volunteer opportunities called Tufts Civic Impact platform.

The Tufts Civic Impact platform is a Tisch College initiative where Tufts students, alumni, faculty, and staff can sign up to volunteer to aid the response effort. The online platform organizes and trains volunteers to be deployed to aid the response either virtually or in person.

Jen McAndrew, Director of Communications for Tisch College, told the Observer that one of their preexisting platforms was adapted to assist with the COVID-19 response and that they “were able to get [the volunteer groups] up and running quickly, partnering with the Office of Government & Community Relations and others across the University.” Currently, the platform boasts 17 volunteer opportunities, both virtual and local, with “over 350 registered overall [and] about 60-80 active volunteers right now.” The volunteer opportunities include everything from filling in shifts on the USDA’s food insecurity hotline to collecting supplies for a local domestic violence service provider and working with the Massachusetts Immigrant And Refugee Advocacy Coalition to remind local residents to fill out the census. In addition to receiving specialized training from the volunteer opportunities, Tisch College provides “support for how to join the groups and get started, as well as general guidelines for volunteering safely at this time.” 

McAndrew ended her message by expressing gratitude towards the Tufts community response and “the many community organizations for their tremendous work at this time of crisis.”

While the pandemic has caused a lot of stress and uncertainty, there are still some bright spots. Responding to the crisis has facilitated cooperation between the students, faculty, and staff of the different schools under the Tufts University umbrella and within the Greater Boston area. Working together has produced proactive, creative, and effective solutions to a pandemic that creates everchanging problems. Tufts is just one of many communities serving as a reminder that, even in times of crisis, cooperation and shows of solidarity prevail. That being said, it is important to acknowledge that Tufts’ transition under COVID-19 has not been without its flaws and that there is still work to be done to ensure everyone’s needs are being met. However, the initiative and determination shown in the actions of the Tufts community so far provide a positive outlook for the future.