Swiss cheese, bluetooth, and pods to the rescue

NECO uses science and multi-layered innovations to stay ahead of COVID-19.

How fast is scientific knowledge changing around the latest COVID-19 precautions? So fast that Dr. Gary Chu’s first stop every morning is now Twitter.

“Every day, even many times a day, new information and new techniques on fighting COVID-19 are coming to light,” says Dr. Chu, OD, MPH, VP of Professional Affairs and the co-leader of NECO’s COVID-19 Task Force. “We can’t wait six months for peer-reviewed articles to appear. So I follow the world’s leading public health officials and scientists on Twitter, where you get their latest thoughts and then immediate responses from other experts — sometimes including notes from our own NECO faculty. It’s a great way to judge and contemplate the pros and cons as we make the best decisions for our facilities.”

NECO’s approach to COVID-19 has been an active combination of classic science, the latest research discoveries, and the ambitious innovation that a global pandemic requires. When the virus first hit, NECO created its own COVID-19 Task Force, led by Dr. Chu and by Shawne Gillies, Director of Facilities and Campus Planning.

Under their guidance, the school responded quickly: classes became remote, and clinical training went virtual. NECO soon proved that telehealth programs for non-emergent patient visits could not merely work, but actually be a positive experience for patients of all types. As the NECO team shared those learnings with other organizations, they became part of an active network of experts applying teamwork against the virus.

As students and patients started to return on a reduced capacity basis in May, creating safe environments and employing the best practices took on fresh urgency.  Here are some of the key elements that NECO has put into place.

The ‘Swiss Cheese’ model

From the start, NECO’s approach to COVID-19 has used multiple layers of prevention to keep the NECO community as safe as possible.

“It’s called the ‘swiss cheese’ approach to protection,” says Gillies. “Each layer of protection is imperfect, and you know that going in. So you add multiple layers to get increased protection. If the virus gets through one hole, it runs into a solid wall and gets stopped in its tracks by another layer of protection.”

NECO keeps adding layers, notes Gillies. “We’ve augmented the model week by week, as we find new processes and technologies that close or shrink the holes in the cheese. We keep learning what works best and strengthening those parts. Then we look for the next layers.”

The COVID Exposure Committee

Can a committee save lives? You bet. The COVID Exposure Committee is a key subgroup of the COVID Task Force. It monitors individuals in the NECO family who are symptomatic, testing positive, or have been exposed to someone who has tested positive, and helps decide on quarantine, isolation or testing protocols. More importantly, it advises clinics and the campus on how to track access and keep everyone safe.

Bluetooth and phone apps

Everyday technology has been a huge help to NECO and the task force:

  • Bluetooth contact tracing.  Everyone on the NECO campus carries a Bluetooth-enabled card that tracks when people come within 6 feet of one another, over multiple sites and specific days, and for total duration. If someone tests positive, the administrator uses a secure database to alert anyone who was closer than six feet away from that person for 15 minutes or more over a 24 hour period of time. Then safety and quarantining measures can begin. Amy Moy explains how NECO uses this innovative tool in a Boston news segment. Click here to view.
  • Symptom tracker phone app. Each day, employees and students who come to campus are asked to complete a symptom tracker on a mobile phone app. Those who show symptoms, or who have traveled out of the state or country, can’t return to campus until approved by the exposure committee.

Electrostatic cleaning

Early in the outbreak, disinfecting wipes were NECO’s choice for sanitizing surfaces between classes. But after extensive research, NECO made the switch to electrostatic sprayers. Using the backpack or handheld units, these sprayers can sanitize 3,000 square feet in six minutes—including chairs, tables, the floor, walls, doorknobs, and light switches.

Student pods

NECO students now work in pods of just 10-12 people, who attend labs throughout the week with each other. This prevents the unneeded exposure that comes with changing groups of students,” states Gillies. “Without the student pod captains and their contributions, we would not be where we are today.” The pods are just the start of safety on campus and in clinics, which also includes:

  • Surgical-grade 4-ply masks provided for use inside every building.
  • The use of air scrubbers to help circulate air in indoor spaces.
  • Changing traffic flow patterns through each building to limit the number of people any individual can be exposed to.
  • COVID-19 testing for students, staff, and faculty provided at dedicated on-campus facilities, made possible through collaborations with The Broad Institute and Tufts University’s IT leadership.

What’s next? Shots in arms! As we move into 2021, NECO is helping staff and students prepare for vaccinations as their turn arrives, including finding immediate vaccination locations for those who qualify.

“Every day is different and we review what we do that often,” states Dr. Chu. “We look forward to the day when we are no longer threatened by COVID, but while it’s still around we remain vigilant and forever learning.”