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Andrew D. Martin and Fred P. Pestello: St. Louis' moment to rally against a pandemic

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St. Louis is well known for a number of things. The Arch. Best fans in baseball (and hockey, for that matter). A vibrant start-up community. Our determined spirit and resilience. And knowing how to survive a pandemic. That’s right, one of our greatest claims to fame is our ability to mobilize and act in a serious health crisis. We’ve done this before, and we’re doing it now.

As you may have read by now, St. Louis took the unpopular step of shuttering its doors in 1918 when the influenza pandemic came knocking. The Post-Dispatch reports it started with schools, churches, sporting events, bars and movie theaters, which should sound familiar. Within a month, the city soon closed all businesses, with minimal exceptions. Essentially, a mandatory quarantine.

The results? St. Louis had the lowest death rate among the top 10 largest cities at the time. The city’s response is now held up as an example of what to do in a pandemic.

Fast forward 102 years: Here we are again, in a very similar position. The coronavirus pandemic is at our door, and the St. Louis region is once again facing the great responsibility of rallying our community into action.

As anchor institutions in the St. Louis region, St. Louis University and Washington University are in lockstep in many important ways as we face this unprecedented moment in the history of higher education. We are banding together — albeit virtually — to rise to the occasion and contribute to the overall effort to protect our St. Louis region by taking critical steps.

Sending students home, moving to remote learning: As institutions of higher education, we’re caring for our students by sending most of them home to complete their studies. Although living on campus is a hallmark of the student experience at both of our institutions, the risk for community spread is just too great in our residential environments. Therefore, we made the difficult decision to suspend on-campus living and switch to online instruction. We continue to care for a small number of students who were unable to return home due to extenuating circumstances and who remain in our residence halls.

Keeping employees home: As employers with a combined workforce of 23,500, we’re taking steps to protect the health and financial security of our faculty and staff. On both campuses, only employees who are essential to the basic operation of our campuses — including our hospitals and medical buildings, as well as police, facilities and other necessary services — are reporting to work on campus. Everyone else has switched to remote work arrangements, significantly reducing the number of people who are moving about in the community.

Front-line medical care: Our hospitals and clinics are preparing to meet the medical needs of St. Louisans, and our university communities are stepping up to support protective-equipment drives and other efforts to make sure our health care providers have what they need to stay safe. We’re reinforcing our existing capabilities to ensure that we are providing high-quality care to as many people as possible as we head into the unknown. While most of us are staying home, our medical clinicians are reporting to the front line every day, making great personal sacrifices in support of the greater good.

As members of the St. Louis community, the dramatic steps we’re taking to shift our operations are intended to keep our students, colleagues, friends and neighbors safe. We are doing our part to flatten the curve and slow the spread of the coronavirus in our region.

In times of crisis, communities pull together. As history has shown, some do this better than others. In St. Louis, if our past is any indication, we have what it takes to dig in and do what is needed to pull through. We’re already seeing this happen in the actions of our leaders, institutions and citizens. We must stay focused, brace ourselves for what comes next, and know that whatever happens, we’ll face it together.

We’ve done this before, St. Louis, and we’ll do it again.

Andrew D. Martin is chancellor of Washington University, and Fred P. Pestello is president of St. Louis University.


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