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Amid Pandemic, the CSU Still Shines Brightly

By Brenda G. Wong

The coronavirus pandemic changed many aspects of Californians’ lives. But one constant remains: California State University being a beacon of hope, locally and statewide. While pivoting students, faculty and staff to virutal operations, the 23-campus university took opportunities during the health crisis to demonstrate countless times its initiative, vitality and drive in powering California’s recovery.

The CSU is an elemental linchpin in California’s economy, the fifth-largest in the world. One in every 10 employees in the state is a CSU graduate. The CSU awards nearly half of the state​s bachelor’s degrees, 41 percent of the state’s nursing graduates and produces most of the state’s teachers. CSU’​s 3.8 million living alumni populate nearly every industry in the state. It’​s little wonder that the university, along with its students, faculty, staff and alumni, came together to help one another and to lead efforts in  their communities and throughout California. While it would be impossible to enumerate every way the CSU family stepped forward, here is a small sampling of noteworthy endeavors.

On the front lines

CSU alumni and students provided a massive array of key services to keep communities safe. In Ventura and Fresno counties, two alumni of San Diego State University and California State University, Fresno, are working to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 as public health directors of those respective counties. The Los Angeles fire chief is an alumnus of California State University, Los Angeles.

Joining them on the front lines were nursing students from California State University, Bakersfield; California State University Channel Islands, California State University, Fullerton, California State University, San B​ernardino; and alumni from California State University, East Bay, and California State University, Northridge. They may have been concerned about their safety, as “nurses and doctors are dying,” said nurse Ruby Brin-Magpoc, an East Bay alumna. But “I kind of realized I have to find a way to cope with the situation; I believe I have a purpose, and this is more than a job for me.” 

Kim Reina Failla, a San Diego State alumna, shared a rewarding part of the job: “To be able to say, ‘Hey, I want to give you some good news’ has been so satisfying. To tell somebody they tested negative is really incredible.” 

The availability of tests for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, initially was limited. Humboldt State University donated and assembled 1,250 COVID-19 test kits to local health care officials.

Anyone who has waited for test results knows how agonizing that can be, particularly during the early days of the pandemic. To that end, two San José State University alumni, David Persing and Rich Nolasco, reduced wait times for test results. They were part of a team that developed the first rapid COVID-19 test that delivers results in 45 minutes. California State University, Monterey Bay, student volunteers helped Monterey County Health Department increase its COVID-19 testing capacity by seven times, shortening wait times for test results to within a day or two in Monterey and San Benito counties.

Farther south, Cal State LA also increased testing capacity when it collaborated with Los Angeles County and the governor’s office to open a new COVID-19 testing site. “This partnership is a testament to the role colleges and universities have in our society and their commitment to helping us get around COVID-19,” said Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis, whose district includes the university.

Looking for the Key

Others worked from the lab or the classroom, searching for a way to treat or prevent COVID-19.

In response to a national design challenge issued by the U.S. Department of Defense, San Diego State professor Kevin Wood and two graduate students created a low-cost mechanical assisted breathing device that could be easily assembled using readily available, off-the-shelf parts and common medical supplies. The cost of making a critically needed ventilator to treat COVID-19? Three hundred dollars, a fraction of the usual cost of tens of thousands of dollars.

Similarly, Sonoma State University engineering professor Farid Farahmand devised a gadget that attaches to a commonly handheld breathing device to track the recovery progress of patients who use them, possibly those with COVID-19.

One professor from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, asked to work with a team in Germany after it published a paper that showed the crystal structure of one of the virus’s proteins.

Now that we have a map of the keyhole, the question becomes how do we find a key,” said Scott Eagon, Cal Poly chemistry and biochemistry professor.

CSUN biology students became involved in a hunt for the protein that could be the Achilles’ heel in the virus. A chance COVID-19-related slide on their professor’s computer piqued the students’ curiosity and launched them into the vaccine project.

Researchers at San Diego State are looking into how COVID-19 spreads and mutates in the environment. Over at Cal State Fullerton, biochemist Stevan Pecic is working on identifying and developing a drug to help COVID-19 patients who have acute respiratory distress syndrome. The lung condition could be fatal for some patients seriously ill from the virus.

It Takes a Good Neighbor

Displaying their care for their communities, campuses made their facilities available to house an expected increase in the number of patients with COVID-19. Cal Poly San Luis Obispo established an alternate care centers in its recreation center. Students and faculty at California State University, Monterey Bay, volunteered to help set up an Alternate Care Site (ACS) at Marina Airport.

Mindful of how the pandemic has walloped small businesses and the economy, a Cal State Fullerton faculty member, Fernando Del Rosario, turned his graphic design class into a means of helping local small-business owners. “Our first instincts [in this crisis] tend to be how long can I keep to myself and let this pass by. Instead, we should be asking the question. ... ‘How can I help move all of us forward together?’” Del Rosario says.

After reaching out to small-business owners, he and his students set about creating four to six weeks’ worth of social media content—and gave it to the businesses for free, “to help them during this time.”

Also helpful were sites that several campuses created to track the spread of the coronavirus. CSUN, for example, created two maps, one to track the virus’​s progress by county on a national level and another by neighborhood in Los Angeles County. Cal State LA also produced a map and an interactive data visualization dashboard that forecasts the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths by region in the U.S. and around the world.

San Diego State also partnered with the San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency to help identify those who may have come into contact with people who have COVID-19. “Contact tracing will help us reach the community members most in need, to contain the spread of this disease in San Diego County by helping people become aware that they may be at risk for COVID-19 and informing them of actions they need to take,” said Hala Madanat, distinguished professor and SDSU​s School of Public Health director.

Getting the Word Out

Other CSU crusaders led the charge to heighten public awareness about subjects that COVID-19 brought to light: xenophobia and palliative care.

In the Bay Area, Russell Jeung, chair of Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University, and two collaborators noted an increase in media reports about pandemic-related racist attacks against Asian Americans because of the virus’​s origins in China. Jeung’s research led to the creation of the STOP AAPI HATE database. In eight​ weeks, it had received nearly 1,900 reports of COVID-19 discrimination directed at Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the U.S., the cent​er said.

When the pandemic increasingly began to affect elderly Americans, Jennifer Ballentine immediately noted the growing need for palliative care. Ballentine is executive director of the California State University Shiley Institute for Palliative Care—a statewide initiative headquartered at California State University San Marcos. She wrote that the need for palliative care is greater than ever and quickly made available to frontline responders nearly two dozen of the institute’s online courses for free.

Face Masks by the Thousands

Of course, the CSU family stepped up to provide personal protective equipment for first responders in their communities and all over the country.

Sen. Steven Bradford, an alumnus of California State University, Dominguez Hills, secured for Harbor-UCLA Medical Center 1,000 face shields produced by CSUDH students with 3D printing.

California State University, Long Beach, donated 2,000 surplus face coverings to area hospitals. Thousands more face masks and shields were created and/or donated by faculty, students or alumni fr​om CSU Bakersfield, California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, Cal State​ San Bernardino and CSU San Marcos. Madison Craig, an East Bay alumna and member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe, distributed cloth masks to Native American reservations and hospitals nationwide. (The Navajo Nation has the highest per-capita COVID-19 infection rate in the U.S.)

San Francisco State donated gloves, eyewear and lab coats. San Luis Obispo produced hand sanitizers.

Plans for a virtual Fall term

Chancellor Timothy P. White’s announcemen​t in May that the CSU was planning for primarily virtual operations for a fall term  reverberated throughout the country. The move came when higher education was still weighing whether to hold in-person classes in the fall, and it reflected concern for the CSU community.

“First and foremost is the health, safety and welfare of our students, faculty and staff, and the evolving data surrounding the progression of COVID-19—current and as forecast throughout the 2020-21 academic year,” the chancellor said. “Virtual planning is necessary because it might not be possible for some students, faculty and staff to safely travel to campus.” 

Since then, many other universities and colleges around the nation have adopted similar measures, including the majority of University of California campuses.

In ways large and small, from the highly visible to the less visible, from sewing face masks to conducting cutting-edge research, these efforts are just a start. With the world reeling from the virus’s blows to life as we knew it, much remains to be done until a vaccine for COVID-19 is developed. Nonetheless, the CSU remains a guiding light in the murky darkness, illuminating—be it a comforting, luminous glow or an intense laser beam—the way to safety and recovery for the community and the state.


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