When disaster strikes, many of us find ourselves overcome with shock, panic, or indecision. Or we just want to put our heads in the sand and wish the bad thing away.
André Le Duc, the University of Oregon’s chief resilience officer, isn’t programmed that way. During his career in emergency management, he’s helped lead responses to floods, severe winter storms, outbreaks of swine flu and meningitis, and a mass shooting. He’s also drawn up detailed blueprints on how to respond to just about any catastrophe or hazard you could imagine on a university campus or in the Pacific Northwest.
Still, the spring of COVID-19 (coronavirus) defied most preparation. A novel virus. Slowly emerging data about the virus’s progression and risk. Uncertainty in how to respond from leaders across the globe.
In just a few weeks, Le Duc went from coordinating the cancellation of a handful of UO study-abroad programs in Asia to helping engineer a remote-instruction-only spring term and a shutdown of all noncritical functions on the university’s campuses—“blunt tools” for slowing the disease’s spread, Le Duc says, that would have been hard to imagine deploying in the pre-COVID-19 era.
Ably supported by an Incident Management Team (IMT) of nearly 150 UO employees and a campus community that responded diligently to public health guidance, Le Duc helped the university navigate and manage this new reality.
Now Le Duc and the IMT are on to the next challenge: the slow, methodical planning required to safely bring people back to campus this fall. That includes a revamped class schedule with longer school days and no big lectures; a policy on face coverings; rigorous COVID-19 testing and contact tracing for students and employees; and mapping every classroom and office to allow for adequate distancing—or determining every room’s “COVID capacity,” as Le Duc puts it.
“The reality is: we are not over this,” Le Duc says. “Instead, now it’s about how do we adapt and live with COVID-19 for the near term.
“How we behave as a society will determine how many people become ill and ultimately die. Everybody has a role. When we return (for fall term), we will ask people to be more selfless and think about others first. I think we will embrace this challenge. And we’ll get through this together.”
RIGHT PLACE, RIGHT TIME FOR DISASTERS
When he was growing up in Wisconsin, Le Duc was fascinated by the tornados that whipped through the region.
“When the rest of my family would run to the basement when the siren went off, I ran outside,” he says. “I was in complete awe.”
Combine that with an early interest in how things work and why they break down, and Le Duc says his career path was clear from a young age.
Bob Parker, director of the UO’s Institute for Policy Research and Engagement, taught Le Duc in the 1990s, when the aspiring crisis-response expert came to Eugene to get his master’s in community and regional planning.
“It’s pretty rare that someone comes in to graduate school with such a clear vision and focus on where they’re going,” says Parker. “[Le Duc] was in the right space at the right time with the right set of skills.”
Interest in disaster mitigation and how institutions could become more resilient to emergencies grew substantially in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Le Duc’s research and networking skills positioned him to be a leader in the field, Parker says.
After 16 years in various positions at the UO, Le Duc became chief resilience officer and associate vice president in 2015.
One of Le Duc’s priorities is sharing information and resources with other resiliency managers in higher education. In 2005, he created the national Disaster Resilient Universities Network, which has more than 2,000 members covering an estimated 900 higher education institutions nationwide.
“André is constantly drawing from and contributing to networks of his peers,” says Cassandra Moseley, interim vice president for research and innovation and Le Duc’s chief deputy in the IMT. “He takes in information but he’s always rethinking it.”
Cam Preus, executive director of the Oregon Community College Association, met Le Duc when he volunteered to help with the response to the Umpqua Community College shooting in Roseburg in 2015.
She says she’s seen the same collaborative spirit during the COVID-19 crisis. Le Duc has created what Preus describes as “a godsend” for Oregon’s higher ed institutions: a detailed matrix that shows which services could reopen when and under what conditions in Gov. Kate Brown’s phased reopening plan.
“He has an inclusive nature, and he wants us all to be successful,” Preus says. “His experience and expertise has really helped Oregon put together a well-informed and foundational plan for universities and community colleges to reopen.”
TESTING GAMBLE PAYS OFF
The UO had a detailed pandemic plan in place before COVID-19 emerged as a serious threat in the US. That plan helped the IMT quickly identify risks in the university’s response and where capacity might be stretched, Le Duc says—including a lack of sophisticated testing equipment.
Anticipating that need, the UO in March acquired two instruments critical for testing that were soon in short supply: an Applied Biosystems 7500 Fast Dx Real-Time PCR and a second automated extraction RNA instrument known as the KingFisher.
That equipment, used in partnership with McKenzie-Willamette Medical Center of Springfield, greatly increased COVID-19 testing capacity in Lane County. That ability to accurately test many patients is key to the area’s continued reopening—both countywide and also on campus this fall.
Moving fast to obtain the pricey equipment “was a gamble that was well worth it,” Le Duc says. “It’s something that benefits the UO in the long term but also the greater Lane County community.”
The COVID-19 response and the constant decision-making it requires is exhausting and incessant work for Le Duc and for many other key members of the IMT. Le Duc has only taken a handful of days off since January—a pattern that’s unlikely to change anytime soon.
“I’m a big believer in mindset: this is a marathon, not a sprint,” he says. “I didn’t think it would be four solid months. But we all have a role to play in this crisis. And this is mine.”
LOOKING TO THE FALL
Planning and preparation is well underway for the UO to return to in-person instruction for fall term. According to André Le Duc, chief resilience officer, guiding principles include:
• Continuing to put student, faculty, and staff health and safety at the forefront.
• Developing comprehensive testing and contact tracing plans for the university in partnership with Lane County Public Health and the Oregon Health Authority.
• Complying with federal, state, and local public health guidance.
• Continuing to coordinate with federal, state, and local leaders and UO counterparts at other West Coast public universities.
• Exploring a variety of methods to safeguard the UO community, including continued remote and flexible work; reducing density in classrooms, research labs, offices, residence halls, and dining facilities; enhanced cleaning of all facilities; and testing and contact tracing for students and employees
More information on the fall resumption planning can be found at uoregon.edu/return-campus-2020.
Saul Hubbard is a staff writer for University Communications.