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Lipscomb University Novel Coronavirus COVID-19 update and response.

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Steverson on front lines of Lipscomb COVID-19 readiness, response

While faculty and staff have been working remotely over the last several weeks, a team of Lipscomb employees have been on the frontlines making the campus healthy and safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kim Chaudoin  | 

Dennis Steverson in front of a team from Service Operations

Dennis Steverson training the Service Operations team on the proper use of disinfectants.

While health care professionals around the world are on the frontlines in medical facilities providing care to patients with COVID-19, another group of professionals are on the frontlines in another critical way — managing, protecting and disinfecting these facilities, work places and grocery stores among other places. 

At Lipscomb University, while the majority of faculty and staff are working from home since classes moved to a remote format for the remainder of spring semester in March, there is an on-the-ground team keeping the campus and its facilities disinfected and safe and serving the handful of international students who were unable to return home when dorms closed last month. The team is composed of professionals from Service Operations, Risk Management, the Health Clinic, Campus Safety and Security, Student Life and Lipscomb Dining Services who continue to work tirelessly to serve the Lipscomb community.

Among those playing a key role in the university’s in-the-trenches planning, management and response is Dennis Steverson, director of environmental health and safety and special projects manager. Steverson, who has been part of Lipscomb’s risk management office for five years, has a graduate degree in public health and experience that prepared him for this unexpected time in the world — fighting a pandemic.

As his role at Lipscomb has evolved over the last few years, Steverson has been the point person for developing environmental safety protocols as well as responding to those needs. On a university campus, those issues can vary greatly from air quality concerns to water intrusion to mold to chemical disposal and everything in between. 

But since mid-February when COVID-19 began surfacing in the United States, Steverson has used his public health expertise to focus on preparing for the virus’s impact on campus and responding as conditions changed. Although Steverson was monitoring reports from overseas and in the state of Washington, he initially did not think the situation would develop into what it is today. But as he stayed in touch with his contacts from universities across the country he talked to a colleague from the University of Washington, a state that became the first hot spot in the U.S. for the spread of the COVID-19 virus, and soon realized the impending reality and magnitude of the situation. 

Dennis Steverson talking at a presentation.

“Once I talked to my colleague there, I realized that we needed to get ahead of the situation and be prepared by ordering a large supply of personal protective equipment, disinfectants and other essential supplies,” said Steverson. “We were also able to learn from their experiences at the University of Washington as we developed disinfecting protocols and began to plan for and manage our response.”

Then, Steverson and Kathy Hargis, associate vice president for risk management, began discussing various scenarios and planning for various plans of action.

“Because of that, we had a good foundation when it was time to really focus and put everything inside of a plan,” he said. 

His public health background helped the Tuscaloosa, Alabama, native understand how the virus would spread, and he studied medical information that was being released about COVID-19 to learn as much as possible about the virus to develop more specific protocols for the campus based on that knowledge.

Innovative Disinfecting System

In addition to having adequate equipment, Steverson knew having a good disinfecting system for campus facilities was critical. He partnered with Jeff Wilson, director of service operations and retail operations, to not only properly train and protect Service Operations staff who would be on the frontlines disinfecting these facilities and implementing disinfecting protocols, but also on developing innovative approaches to this task. 

For example, they met with a disinfecting spray vendor which supplied the chemicals in standard-sized spray bottles. Steverson and Wilson knew they would need a more efficient way to disinfect a campus the size of Lipscomb’s. So, they bought a supply of pesticide sprayers that can hold a large volume of disinfectant and that have spray nozzles that allow crews to disinfect a larger area in a room more quickly.

“We painted the sprayers black because the disinfectant can’t be exposed to light. So now, we have these big backpack devices filled with disinfectant that allows us to spray larger areas with the disinfectant and to be more efficient with our efforts,” explained Steverson. “We are like the ghostbusters of COVID-19. This was just one of the innovations we came up with so we didn’t have to spray small amounts and wipe down every room the traditional way that would have been very time consuming. This device made disinfecting a large campus on a daily basis a whole lot easier.”

When we come back we will all be learning this new normal together and there will be some hiccups and a learning curve for everyone. I urge everyone to have patience as we come back to campus as we continue to cement our protocols and how we will be handling this new normal. — Dennis Steverson

Steverson said he also simplified the process by streamlining the chemicals that were being used by the Service Operations team to just use a few disinfectants. He said Service Operations has done a tremendous job working daily to keep the campus disinfected and safe for those who are there and to prepare for students, faculty and staff to return at some point in the future. 

“The process has gone well and we have not had any COVID-19 cases that have originated on the Lipscomb campus to my knowledge,” he said. “The housekeepers and building engineers deserve all of the credit for the success of what we are doing. They are the ones on the frontlines, and it’s because of their diligence in disinfecting the campus that we have been successful in these efforts. They are disinfecting door knobs three, four and five times a day and that’s just an example of the great care they are taking with their work.”

Service Operations on the front lines

“They care about keeping our campus virus free,” he continued. “And as happy as I am to help, right now I think the most important part of my job is to make sure I’m keeping them safe. They don’t have jobs where you can work from home. They’re our first line of defense here every single day. Even though campus is mostly shut down, we still have visitors coming into our campus. Security is working hard to keep buildings locked, but with an open campus it’s difficult to keep visitors from coming here. They have probably had the highest risk of our employees throughout this.” 

Since Lipscomb officials made the decision in mid-March to move to remote learning for students and for the majority of faculty and staff to work from home in accordance with city and state guidelines, Steverson has been among a small number of employees who have worked on campus as essential frontline workers during this time. 

Dennis Steverson and house keeping staff

Although no two days have been alike, Steverson said he tends to begin each day by connecting with the Service Operations team and walking around campus to check on various buildings and public spaces to monitor activity to make sure it is as minimal as possible. As students have returned to campus in pockets to move their belongings out of the residence halls, he has made sure the rooms are disinfected when they are vacated. Steverson also monitors job requests that come in from around campus to disinfect areas where employees have been. “We have to do that every single time that an employee comes into a building,” he said. 

In addition, Steverson is preparing for the future when employees and students will return to campus by developing new protocols that will help make the environment as healthy as possible and to educate the community about what they can do to help in their areas.

“We are preparing for several ‘new normals’ and contingency plans for a variety of scenarios to minimize the risk of the virus when people return to campus,” he said. “When we come back we will all be learning this new normal together and there will be some hiccups and a learning curve for everyone. I urge everyone to have patience as we come back to campus as we continue to cement our protocols and how we will be handling this new normal.”

He also said individuals can play a significant role in this new normal by staying home and self isolating in the future when they feel sick and minimizing the risk of exposing others. 

“I want us to remember that we are the Lipscomb community and we want to make sure that we take care of our community,” advised Steverson. “The best thing we can do as Lipscomb employees and students to keep them safe is if we are experiencing any of the symptoms of this virus or other illnesses is to self-isolate immediately. Don’t be scared to report that you might have these symptoms. We have very understanding leadership that this is a new and very important situation.”

What Steverson said he hopes for when people return to campus primarily is that they will have an appreciation for the Service Operations team and the essential employees who have been on the frontlines throughout the university’s pandemic response. 

Steverson has played a vital role in the university’s successful navigation of this pandemic so far, said Hargis. 

“Dennis is such a great team player, and that is so important in situations like this because it takes a team of people in the trenches planning for and responding to something this significant,” she said. “We have not experienced anything like this before and his leadership and expertise have been critical to how we have managed this. He has been on campus nearly every day since this impacted our campus in mid-March and has been working diligently behind-the-scenes for this community.”

'By the grace of God I found this field'

Environmental safety is not something Steverson initially wanted to pursue professionally. He considered several other career paths following his graduation from the University of Alabama Birmingham with his master’s degree in public health and following a stint in laboratory safety there. Many of his colleagues continued on to medical school, to conduct research or a teaching path. He did not feel called to pursue those options. 

Following the advice of his minister, J.W. Pitts, a Lipscomb Board of Trustees member at the time, Steverson applied for a safety role in the university’s risk management office. He was offered the job and it was a decision that changed the trajectory of his career. 
 
“If you would have asked me six years ago if I would have ever been in the field of environmental health and safety … it is nothing but by the grace of God that I found this field. It had never really been on my mind as a career choice, and now I honestly can’t see myself doing anything else. I love being a health and safety professional because it brings together the problem-solving skills from my graduate program and allows me to interface with the public a lot more.”

The role has evolved through his tenure at Lipscomb as research particularly in pharmacy and the health sciences has grown. He said it has allowed him to meet a large majority of faculty and staff on campus. 

Learning new things

“I’ve learned so many new things through this role,” he said. “I don’t have a normal 8-5 day. My day often is dictated by maybe an email that I’ll get from someone who notices something odd in their building or smell an odd smell. Then I’m off and going to check that out. Every day is different.”

Steverson said his experiences over the last few months dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic have also been valuable learning opportunities. Among those lessons are that planning and being prepared for a situation is important, but every situation is unique.

“I like learning new things,” he said. “One of my big takeaways from this experience is that as much as you plan ahead you also have to be flexible and call audibles at any juncture along the way. Of course we had a pandemic plan and it’s a good plan … and you definitely need those plans as a baseline so those in your community are aware of their roles in various situations. But I think it’s good to think of those plans as almost a playbook.”

“It’s like a coach you knows the plays they have developed and practiced, but until the game starts and you begin playing against that opponent you don’t necessarily know which plays you are going to need to pull out of that playbook,” Steverson continued. “Having effective coaches is important. Kathy has been a great coach and has made sure that we have the right plays. That’s one of the biggest things that I’ve learned is that I can write the plan today for one thing and it might look one way today, but I’ll always know that I’ll need to build options into those plans moving forward.”

Classes will remain online throughout the summer terms and at press time faculty and staff continue to work from home. 

For more information about Lipscomb’s response to COVID-19 visit www.lipscomb.edu/COVID19.