The anatomy of decision-making in a pandemic

January 15, 2021

It has been almost a year since Western’s first COVID-19 update – January 24, 2020.

And what a year it has been.

Since then, staff and faculty have been working day and night to prioritize the health and safety of the campus community and to respond to the rapidly evolving pandemic, the most significant health challenge of our lifetime.

“These are unprecedented times. We’re experiencing a worldwide emergency without a playbook,” said President Alan Shepard. “It hasn’t been easy. The pandemic has forced us to change and adapt more than once, and I am immensely proud of how our campus community has shown resilience, innovation and empathy for one another.”

During a pandemic, the directives from the province as well as local and national health officials are paramount. Directives can change weekly, daily, sometimes hourly.

“The important directives from government and health officials demand that we synthesize and make decisions for Western as quickly as we can,” said Shepard. “I have relied on an incredible team of leaders at Western to help me make these important decisions for our university.”

In the midst of a rapidly evolving pandemic, some have wondered how does Western make decisions about COVID-19 precautions, and when does it share that information with the community?

In short, the process has been: listen, digest, consult, pivot, communicate, act.

In the early days of the pandemic, Western convened a COVID-19 working group, with representatives from the Provost’s office, operations, health and safety, human resources, housing, student experience and communications.

This group has been responsible for seeking out the latest information about the Novel Coronavirus – remember, 2020 began with no diagnostic test, effective treatment or even a clear understanding of how this particular virus was transmitted – and for monitoring and assessing directives from local, provincial and national authorities.

The group has placed full effort on ensuring safety for the community, while determining the impact of each new directive on teaching and learning, research, residences, and campus activities and operations.

As research in the summer showed masks could control the spread of the virus, for example, Western supplied on-campus students, faculty and staff with face coverings, developed a Take Care Western campaign, and contracted a Toronto firm to supply tens of thousands of branded masks.

The working group consulted with academic and student leaders, employee groups, Western’s leadership team and about 50 other leaders from across campus. And together they developed, communicated and implemented new protocols for cleaning, research, dining, teaching and a host of daily operations from classroom occupancy limits to directional signs.

“Whether it’s a new directive from the province, an updated health and safety protocol from our local health unit, or an outbreak, we mobilize quickly to determine the impact on campus operations,” said Lynn Logan, vice-president (operations and finance).

“We are in constant contact with Middlesex-London Health Unit officials and I can’t over-state how valuable that relationship has been in helping us to keep the campus community safe.”

While the group has responded to current public-health knowledge and directives, it has also had to anticipate a host of emerging and hypothetical scenarios – creating if-this/then-that decision trees that may never be needed, or may be needed sooner than expected.

“We often learn of a new directive in the morning, assess the impact and make decisions in the afternoon, and communicate later that same night,” Logan said.

The working group has sometimes started conducting an analysis of the latest information and, mid-meeting, learned of developments that lead decision-making down an entirely different path, she said.

In a matter of two weeks in December, rising infection levels placed London into progressively more serious infection control ‘zones’ – from protect-yellow, to prevent-orange, to red.

And, for each, there were new implications, new decisions and customized messages reflecting their impact on classes, exams, research, sports, recreation and residences.

Then, just before winter break, the signs were clear: cases across Canada were escalating and it became necessary to anticipate a decision about the winter term.

The working group consulted with academic and operational leaders across campus and with the Middlesex-London Health Unit. And the day after the premier announced a province-wide shut down, Western issued a statement that in-person instruction would be pushed to January 25.

As the new year began, the community prepared to return to classes, research and campus residences. But rising national infection rates told a dramatically different story.

“We issued an update on January 8 in anticipation of stricter restrictions from the province,” Logan said. “We weren’t required to delay residence move-in or delay in-person classes but all the numbers and best advice told us we needed to have fewer people on campus, not more.”

Under ordinary circumstances, the information-gathering, consultation, decision-making, pivoting and communicating major operational and instructional changes would have taken weeks of consideration. On January 8, it took a matter of hours.

“To some, it may have seemed we were moving too slowly and to others it may have seemed we were moving too quickly,” said Logan. In the end, the provincial stay-home directive came just a few days later and we believe our earlier, proactive decision helped protect the health and safety of the Western community.”

The COVID-19 team continues to meet and plan and map out next steps in a pandemic that has been anything but predictable, Logan said.

“Our goal is always to communicate as early and as often as we can, as we understand the effect these rapidly changing directives can have on our students, staff and faculty.”