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Opinion | Michigan's public universities serving public mission during crisis

Michigan’s 15 public universities are digging in to fight the coronavirus pandemic, providing expertise, medical care, facilities, and even the physical tools needed to minimize the damage the disease is having on our people, our communities and our economy.

Around the state, the physicians, nurses and pharmacists battling COVID-19 are often products of Michigan’s world-renowned public universities. Our medical schools are the sources of hundreds of new Michigan physicians and our nursing schools send hundreds of nurses into the health care system each year. Our pharmacy schools prepare young graduates for the vital job of preparing and delivering life-saving pharmaceuticals to Michigan residents, young and old. Our public health schools train experts in preventing and responding to diseases and other life-threatening situations.

These are the men and women literally on the front lines of what President Trump has rightly called “a war with an invisible enemy.” Absent these talented college graduates, Michigan’s preparedness would be far less than it is today. We have seen new medical schools and nursing programs spring up in recent years in response to demand, as universities regularly scan the marketplace and strive to meet the needs of our state.

The advantage of these centers of academic health excellence cannot be overemphasized in this crisis. Michigan Medicine, for instance, has been testing for the coronavirus among patients in U-M’s healthcare system in its own, on-site laboratories, adding vital capacity to overtaxed state labs.

Wayne State University’s Physician Group has joined the university’s health sciences staff and the ACCESS Community Health and Research Center to provide drive-through testing in Detroit and Dearborn, with a focus on health care workers and first responders who have symptoms of COVID-19. Wayne State has also formed a partnership with Southeast Michigan health systems to participate in vaccine and medicine trials to fight the virus. 

Michigan State University’s health sciences team has connected with The Right Place, Inc. in Grand Rapids to identify the needs of local health systems and the ability of West Michigan manufacturers to pivot to meet them, either using existing supplies or creating new equipment.

Even now, properly licensed professors and staff – doctors and nurses – are stepping away from teaching responsibilities and research laboratories to backfill at state psychiatric hospitals, as state employees at those facilities are called away to aid in the COVID-19 response, and to address an expected surge in psychiatric patients.

Students who are wrapping up nursing and physician education, but haven’t yet fulfilled their final clinical requirements, have been granted waivers and temporary licenses by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and state regulators so they can get into the field as quickly as possible to join the dangerous but necessary fight against COVID-19.

Around the state, even as all of the public universities have made the rapid conversion to an array of remote educational delivery models to meet social distancing requirements, Michigan’s university leaders remain focused on doing what they can to help alleviate the pressures on our health systems in their communities.

Grand Valley State University has prepared its Cook-Devos Center for Health Sciences in Grand Rapids as contingency space for Spectrum Health and has donated 90,000 gloves that were to be used by various science programs to Spectrum. Saginaw Valley State University is partnering with a Saginaw distillery to manufacture hand sanitizer. Like Michigan’s other public universities, Lake Superior State University has gathered materials from its nursing, chemistry and biology labs, providing additional hospital beds, IV pumps, N95 masks and face shields to its local hospital, War Memorial, in Sault Ste. Marie.

Oakland University is housing Beaumont Health physicians and nurses, with dorm rooms providing valuable hours of rest between shifts. All of Michigan’s public universities have extended an array of human resources, scientific research, and facilities, as well as personal protective equipment and other assets to address this global pandemic.

These realities and others should remind everyone that our state’s public universities are integral to a successful Michigan, in winning the war against COVID-19, and in preparing for the next pandemic which, science and experience tells us, is inevitable.

Michigan’s public universities have long been recognized as among the best in the nation, a beacon to students from around the state and around the globe aspiring to make a real difference in the world. They are public universities, serving an incredibly important public mission, and are once again showing their value during this difficult time.

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