Reflecting on the work of the Public Health Response Team

A look back at the team’s efforts and achievements.

Aerial view of North Campus

It’s hard to believe it has been more than three years since we first heard of COVID-19. Three years since our world changed significantly, since staff and faculty were instructed to work from home and our campuses became ghost towns. We’ve come a long way from moving university operations online, to scouring suppliers for PPE, to mandatory public health measures being lifted, to our return to full in-person learning this past September.

As of May 5, the University of Alberta will be downgrading its COVID-19 pandemic response from a Level 2 to a Level 1 emergency. Level 1 means that any operational effects from the pandemic are being effectively handled by individual university departments and regular resources, and no longer require coordination by the Public Health Response Team (PHRT). It’s been a long road to get here, and while we look back on this time, I want to applaud the resiliency and commitment of our community and the countless staff members working behind the scenes for extended periods of time.

When it all began in February 2020, I was on vacation, blissfully unaware of the events that were about to unfold. Then-president David Turpin called me on February 27 wanting my opinion on the severity of this virus that was taking over the news. He asked me to be the Executive Lead for our university’s response team. When I returned to the office a week later, we formally stood up the PHRT and got to work.

It was all hands on deck, gathering members from every corner of the university so that all of our institutional needs could be met. We did our jobs off the side of our desk while our attention shifted to COVID-19 and whatever level of support was needed going forward. We supported field research so it could continue within constraints. We supported more than 1000 students in residence who had nowhere else to go. We supported Alberta Health Services by turning the Butterdome into an early treatment centre and then a reserve hospital. Everyone stepped up and came together to keep the university moving forward.

Since the pandemic began, the PHRT has served as a critical link between university administration and government health agencies. It ensured staff and faculty were informed of the latest public health measures during uncertain and challenging times. It is by far the longest crisis management team event in the U of A’s history, after more than three years of continuous operation.

Throughout the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the PHRT kept our community safe, with no major outbreaks across our five campuses. We even managed to keep an element of in-person learning and research accessible at different levels and times. I remember when it was looking like all research would all have to be shuttered, which would have been hugely damaging. But the PHRT worked closely with colleagues from both the Office of the Vice-president (Research and Innovation) and faculties to ensure essential research could continue safely.

When I agreed to take on the role of leading our pandemic response, I knew this would be a challenging task not just for me, but particularly for my staff in Facilities and Operations. The frontline staff who had to remain on site, interacting with others when there was no vaccine and protection on the horizon. Even outside of the PHRT and my team, it was an incredibly collaborative effort, from Human Resources, Health, Safety and Environment, to the Vice-Provost and Dean of Students, to the Office of the Registrar, to External Relations and countless other departments, I have the most sincere appreciation and thanks for all of their advice and help.

Going forward, Facilities and Operations’ Emergency Management team will lead the institutional monitoring of COVID-19 until such time when the World Health Organization (WHO) declares the pandemic over. For the safety of our entire university community, we will continue to monitor public health trends, hospitalizations, and take advice from Dr. Chris Sikora, Medical Officer of Health who's been supporting us as a member of PHRT since July 2022.

Looking back to March 2020, I suspect few of us would have imagined our response to COVID-19 would still be taking place more than three years later. Three years is a long time. It almost seems difficult to remember a time where we didn’t have the PHRT. With that, I would like to extend my immense gratitude to the PHRT and all of our U of A faculty and staff for your ongoing efforts during this challenging and disruptive time, and your continued dedication to keeping our entire community healthy.

Andrew Sharman
Vice-President (Facilities and Operations)
Executive Lead, Public Health Response Team