The SRU student health center has reduced their hours from operating 24/7 to operating from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. due to staffing shortages.
Since the start of the pandemic, the heath center has had five nurses retire and four nurses leave for other opportunities. They also have gone from four nurse practitioners to two.
“This is a huge change,” Kristina Benkeser, director of student health services and student health and wellness, said. “I’ve worked within the health service for 30 years, the last 17 as the director, and this is probably the most significant operational change we’ve made in that time.”
The new hours were not chosen at random though. The health center analyzed their visitation patterns and chose to staff the hours of greatest use.
“It wasn’t so much that the 24-hour, seven-days-per-week service was not valuable,” Benkeser said. “That’s never been questioned.”
Students pay $172.50 per semester for health services, or they can opt to pay $44 per visit. With the rising cost of health care, that fee does not cover all the resources needed.
The health center has three prongs to their mission: Clinical care such as appointments, screenings and immunizations, health promotion and responding to public health concerns.
Heath promotion, overseen by health promotion coordinator Vanessa Vought, deals with data surveys regarding student health issues like mental health, sleep studies and drug and alcohol use.
Before COVID-19, responding to public health concerns has not been an integral part of their mission since swine flu in 2008. Now, they field questions about the ongoing pandemic and the monkeypox epidemic.
A pandemic tends to be respiratory and affects everyone at the same risk around the world. An epidemic means there are an increased number of cases and spreading but at a slower rate than a respiratory disease like COVID-19 or the flu would spread. Monkeypox is spread through direct contact.
“One of the biggest differences was that last year, we had almost 200,000 phone calls,” Benkeser said, “so now we have one nurse whose primary responsibility is the phone.”
In addition to the director and two nurse practitioners, the health center has an RN who is the nurse supervisor, seven full-time nurses, one part-time nurse, a physician that works five hours per week and a substitute pool they call on as needed.
The substitute pool consists of one nurse practitioner and 11 nurses, but they often work minimal hours and have other full-time jobs. The substitute pool is utilized most when they host clinics.
A registered nurse is licensed with the state and can take telephone calls, initial assessments and follow other protocols. A nurse practitioner has all the same schooling plus an additional two to four years, which allows them to diagnose and write prescriptions.
Before COVID-19, the health center was open 24/7 and allowed walk-ins, or visits without an appointment. Those patients would sit in the waiting room and be worked into the schedule.
This would result in as many as 30 people in the waiting room at times, mixing the healthy and the sick. Staff would offer to make appointments, but students were often content to wait.
“We try really hard to separate the ill from the healthy,” Benkeser said. “Especially because COVID-19 is rapidly spread, so we have not returned to walk-in hours.”
They now require appointments so all sick patients are seen in the same block as to not put healthy patients at risk, but they will not turn anyone away in an emergency.
“Appointments have been full each day, but it’s been manageable,” she said.
The health center is always busier at the start of the semester because students need physicals, test and screenings or may have an illness left over from the summer.
Many of the patients they’re seeing are related to COVID-19 and other, lesser infections. They also see many patients for more routine reasons like those tests, screenings, physicals and immunizations.
The health center also works in triangulation with the counseling center and other student support systems. Often, the counseling center will send their patients in to assess if they would benefit from medication.
Benkeser reflected on the changes she has seen throughout her time at SRU. When she started, many of our current student support systems and mental health medications hadn’t been invented yet.
“What a game-changer for patients,” she said. “You didn’t have to wait eight months to see a psychiatrist. We had a way to help people. That has been one of the more wonderful evolutions since I’ve been here.”
Even though hours are shorter, the health center has not been seeing fewer patients.
The number of students seen in a 12-hour period has increased, but the daily numbers are holding steady, so it doesn’t appear that anyone is going without care, she said.
Their statistics are increased from where they were last year, but there are also more students on campus.
“What I look at for COVID-19 is are we approaching baseline,” she said. “Are we getting back to that pre-pandemic number of visits, and it looks like we’re almost there.”
The health center also has a telehealth program if students are away from campus. During the beginning of the pandemic, it was mostly used for refilling medications. Now, most students prefer to be seen in person.
“It’s one of those things where we don’t do it very often,” she said, “but when we do, it’s very meaningful for the students that we help that way.”
The health center was also sent 20,000 COVID-19 antigen home tests they gave out to students at the Fall Assembly. If you missed these, they will also be giving them out at Boozel Dining Hall on Friday at lunchtime and next week at Rocky’s during common hour. Each student will be given two tests.
The health center is also partnering with Giant Eagle pharmacy to host a free clinic on Sept. 26 from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. where students will be able to get COVID-19 boosters.
These boosters will protect against the B-4 and B-5 variants that are currently circulating.
Students should be watching their email to sign up. The health center strongly encourages students to make an appointment so there are not too many people congregating at once, but they will take walk-ins.
If they come in on time, the health center will also be offering free flu shots that come with fuel perks since they are partnered with Giant Eagle, Benkeser said.
“We’ve had four or five COVID-19 clinics with them, and they do flu-shot clinics for us every year,” she said. “They go really well. People just move through.”
Students will be required to wait 15 minutes after their injection, but there will be snacks.