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Augsburg’s in-house epidemiologist guides Auggies through the COVID-19 pandemic

On the Spot Q&A with Associate Professor Alicia Quella

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Head shot of Alicia Quella
Associate Professor Alicia Quella (Photo by Courtney Perry)

Remember those days of uncertainty in March 2020, when we had more questions than answers, and before most of us used terms like “coronavirus” and “social distancing”?

The United States saw an increase in COVID-19 infections, and some states—including Minnesota—applied stay-at-home orders to mitigate the spread. Weeks before that inflection point, Augsburg University administrators, faculty, and staff convened a COVID-19 task force.

Not all educational institutions have an epidemiologist on staff, but Augsburg is fortunate. One of the task force’s principal leaders is Alicia Quella, associate professor and director of Augsburg’s physician assistant program. As an educator with a PhD in epidemiology and experience in public health settings around the world, her expertise has proved invaluable for the university’s grasp of the evolving global crisis and Augsburg’s response to maintain the health and safety of community members.

Between fielding student questions about the coronavirus, volunteering at COVID-19 testing sites, and ensuring the Augsburg community can trace contacts and reduce transmission on campus, Quella shared some perspectives on her work and where we go from here.

Q: How have you been involved in Augsburg’s outbreak planning and COVID-19 response?

A: I serve on the pandemic task force, a university-wide team of people that assembled after it was apparent that COVID-19 would significantly affect institutions of higher education across the United States. We collaborate regularly with epidemiologists from the Minnesota Department of Health to implement public health guidelines for campuses. We started to meet daily to coordinate issues involving classrooms and labs, athletics, residence halls, dining services, facilities, and global education. We started a COVID-19 Response Team, which comprises staff and faculty across campus who implement health protocols and support students and personnel who have illness, have COVID-19, or have been exposed to it.

Q: What were your first thoughts when you heard about COVID-19 and considered its implications for the Augsburg community?

A: When news of a novel coronavirus was circulating in China, I was immediately concerned because I had studied the epidemiology of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV-1) during my doctoral work through the University of Iowa Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases. In 2003, SARS quickly spread to 29 countries, so I knew that this would be a major issue in the United States.

Q: At this stage in the COVID-19 pandemic, what are the most important things for the public to understand and do?

A: To reach herd immunity [when a significant portion of a community is immune to a disease and thereby makes spread unlikely] we all need to continue to ‘bubble’ and limit the number of close contacts, wear face masks, socially distance, and get vaccinated.

I also encourage the students and my patients to be creative and find ways to keep active and engaged—start a new hobby, do something outdoors, and reach out to relatives and friends who may be isolated right now.

Q: What do you see in the post-COVID-19 world?

A: Colleges and universities have seen a rapid diffusion of innovation in how they are using technology to deliver curriculum, participate in athletics, and maintain operations. This energy and innovation will have to continue to promote widespread vaccine uptake. Vaccine hesitancy is an issue, especially in communities of color that have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 because of structural racism. Augsburg will need to make this a top priority moving forward.

Q: What’s a memorable moment of the past year that made an impact on you?

A: As an epidemiologist and a physician assistant, I’ve had the opportunity to continue to see patients and work with Augsburg students, staff, and faculty. I recently received the COVID-19 vaccine and have felt humbled and honored to now be able to continue to work more safely in the community.

Top image: Associate Professor Alicia Quella’s experience as an epidemiologist has helped maintain the health and safety of the Augsburg community. (Photo by Courtney Perry)

Read more Augsburg stories on COVID-19.

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