Pittsburg State University has had its share of problems to deal with due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic — from having to cancel in-person classes in the spring, to budget shortfalls, to trying to contain a COVID-19 outbreak as students returned to campus this semester.


One area where PSU has an advantage over other universities, though, is that it has a dedicated facility to help it deal with the unprecedented impact of COVID-19 — the Bryant Student Health Center.


As the university has been providing regular updates on its coronavirus mitigation efforts, this week it was promoting the successes of the health center in coordinating efforts with the Crawford County Health Department to slow the spread of COVID-19 after an outbreak at the start of the semester appeared to have the potential to be much more devastating to the community.


"In August, the health center added to its portfolio the status of being the only student health center at a Regent institution in Kansas that was solely responsible for the entry testing of students, and the only one participating in contact tracing," PSU noted in a press release.


Between Aug. 14 and Sept. 21, the health center tested more than 900 students, including those participating in Move-In Day at PSU’s residence halls, and additional students who showed symptoms in the days after classes began Aug. 17. The center has also monitored more than 1,000 students rotating in and out of quarantine and isolation.


The Bryant Student Health Center is the only student health center to have created a COVID-19 case manager position held by someone with a master’s degree in public health — Taylor Panczer, the university noted in its release. Panczer and her colleagues at the center have all earned COVID-19 contact tracing certifications from John Hopkins University.


The health center, named after former PSU President Dr. Tom Bryant and his wife, Koeta, and funded through a student fee and contributions from numerous donors, was dedicated just over a decade ago "as a modern, tech-rich, robust medical facility for students, staff, and faculty," the university said in its release.


Today, the center’s operations are directed by Rita Girth, with Dr. Kathleen Sandness as medical director. It’s staffed by three front desk receptionists, a finance manager, four nurses, three nurse practitioners, and four counseling staff.


The health center’s success in mitigating the spread of COVID-19 has been greatly assisted by its partnership with the county health department and participation in a county-wide task force of health officials and providers that have a daily conference call at 8 a.m.


"It's very unique that we have such a collaborative relationship; that isn't happening everywhere," Girth said in PSU’s press release. "When I talk to people outside of our county, they’re all jealous of what we have in the way of a partnership in Pittsburg, Kansas. I guarantee you no one else has the cell phone numbers of the public health officers like Taylor does."


The health center also partners with Cytocheck, a lab in Parsons, to run COVID-19 tests on saliva samples it collects and get results within 24 hours.


"Yesterday, we sent tests at 4 p.m. and this morning our staff were notifying people of their results by 8 a.m.," Girth said. "We are very pleased with that kind of turnaround time."


While the saliva tests are not technically "rapid tests," Bryant Student Health Center leaders view them as preferable because they are more accurate.


"The problem with rapid tests, which we opted to not do, is that a positive is a positive but a negative might not be a negative," Girth said.


Keeping track of those who test positive is labor intensive. Numbers are trending down, but in late August and early September, there were as many as 600 in quarantine due to having been in close contact with a positive case and more than 100 positive cases in isolation.


"We personally notify each person, we send them a packet of information, we do documentation, we forward it to the county health department, and we add it to a spreadsheet so the Student Life division is aware," Girth said.


At one point, staff did a daily phone call with students in isolation until the number reached 40 and it became unmanageable. Staff learned to change operations to let students contact them — including by text, if preferred — on an as-needed basis.


With everything the student health center is having to deal with amid the pandemic, Panczer has to wear many hats — acting as counselor, answering frequently asked questions, helping students who need assistance with alternative housing and food plans while in quarantine and isolation, helping put parents at ease, and more.


"I try to be a one-stop shop," Panczer said, "to lessen the number of different departments and people each person we serve has to talk to at a time when they’re in crisis."