When summer 2021 ended, many organizations faced the formidable challenge of how to return to their places of work and school safely. Tuskegee University (Tuskegee) was one of them—not only was the safe return of students and faculty to school a priority but since Tuskegee is in a community with no hospital, controlling exposure was essential.
At the time, Tuskegee encountered many challenges, including but not limited to a statewide shortage of testing kits, inability to handle the broadscale logistics of testing, contact tracing, and figuring out a simplified way to report on status and schedule tests.
With the help of industry partners like Microsoft and Enabling Technologies, Tuskegee was able to build and execute a successful strategy to allow students to return to school safely amidst COVID-19.
Public health specialist, Crystal James stepped up to address the challenge that Tuskegee faced. "We realized that to get back to face to face, we needed to have a strategy to protect the learning environment," she recalled. She expanded her responsibilities as Department Chair in the College of Veterinary Medicine to include a new position: the Special Assistant to the President for COVID-19 Response.
Lack of testing kits
The first hurdle faced was the lack of test kits. According to Crystal, the COVID-19 Recovery Management Center (CRMC) studied the test kits and decided to make their own kits. The Tuskegee CRMC is composed of laboratory scientists, policy specialists, nurses, and public health professionals. They made test kits for the faculty, staff, students, and the surrounding Black Belt Counties who lacked access to tests.
Handling the logistics of testing
With their campus laboratories ready to make the kits, the industry came to Tuskegee’s aid. Thermo Fisher Scientific generously offered the instrumentation for Tuskegee to do PCR testing on campus. In February 2021, Tuskegee University opened its own Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA) certified reference laboratory and began PCR testing for COVID-19. They tied their testing systems to Thermo Fisher’s for processing.
An easy-to-use app
With test kits and the ability to provide results on campus, Tuskegee University Health Disparities Diagnostic Center addressed the next step—developing a mechanism to deliver the test results back to individuals promptly and contact tracing on campus.
Tuskegee found Microsoft’s offerings and solutions to be the right fit—using Microsoft Power Platform, Dataverse & Azure API for FHIR, the institution had tools to schedule tests, send test results back, and attest to health status while on campus.
Building an app that was simple to use was paramount. The features in the app that was built using Microsoft’s Power Platform allowed students and faculty to:
- Report and screen for symptoms—keeping track of symptoms and questionnaire responses by completing daily self-attestations from a smartphone or desktop.
- Create daily passes—after completing the daily self-attestation, the application generates a unique daily QR code. That barcode is scanned to gain access to campus facilities.
- Manage testing—designated personnel can manage student appointments, questionnaire responses, and test result notifications.
You can find the information about the implementation at Golden Tiger Health Check | Tuskegee University.
Integration assistance from Enabling Technologies
Microsoft Gold Partner, Enabling Technologies (Enabling), led the coordinated development efforts on behalf of Tuskegee. Enabling also rolled out the Return to School app at Lake Washington School District, Kent School District, and Howard University.
"Enabling Technologies provided the technical expertise to create a new system that would talk to the two existing systems," stated Crystal, "including CareEvolve and Thermo Fisher’s Platform for Science. Enabling helped with APIs, programming, and some other integration, which was helpful for non-IT people."
Microsoft technology provided a simple-to-use app and the integration protocols needed to handle the end-to-end testing and results.
Enabling architected the solution and used the Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources (FHIR®) protocol within Azure API for FHIR to safeguard Tuskegee data. Azure API for FHIR was used to facilitate the movement of data between the application built on Power Platform and the testing lab software systems.
The rollout at Tuskegee and other Historically Black Colleges and Universities was aligned to Microsoft’s racial equity initiative. this solution was also deployed in support of Microsoft's announcement to commit more than $110M to support nonprofits, workers, and schools in Washington state.
Soothing the concerns of the community
With COVID-19 swirling, Tuskegee’s students, faculty, and staff had enough on their minds. Learning to use a new app could not be yet another burden. Enabling’s Adoption and Organizational Change team, led by Gabrielle Manuel, stepped in. "It was important to provide students, faculty, and staff with appropriate support materials and advance messaging to prepare them to begin using the app," she said. "The custom messaging, user guides, and videos provided clear instructions and expectations."
Tuskegee’s James advised, "One of the biggest issues that isn’t as well highlighted about the pandemic is the anxiety created when you have to engage in public spaces during this pandemic. Having a tool like this assists us to bring that anxiety level down to a manageable level and bring our students and faculty back to an environment we can call as safe as possible."
The implemented solution through Microsoft’s Power Platform improved the safety of Tuskegee's students, faculty, and staff. The Return to School solution helped decrease the time from exposure to a confirmed PCR lab result to five hours. It also helped Tuskegee to assure parents and students that there is a system to monitor trends every day since RTS also publishes results to their dashboard. Tuskegee published the number of cases on campus, the number of tests conducted, and the percentage of positive cases reducing the mental stress on potentially exposed individuals.
"Microsoft’s release was just in time," said Chris Stegh, CTO, Enabling Technologies. "The fact that the app could be activated in the existing Microsoft 365 tenant made the decision simple. Azure API for FHIR allowed the app to integrate with the university’s COVID-19 testing lab."
While Ms. James is optimistic, she’s also realistic. "While I know the rest of the world would like for us just call it over, that's not how pandemics work. We realize that COVID-19 will still be an issue that needs to be addressed on our campus. Because we are in an area that does not have a hospital and access to health care is very sparse, we want to continue to monitor the prevalence of COVID-19 on our campus. The app will help us pivot should another wave start around the country."
- Learn more about Tuskegee University.
- Read our recent blog, "Microsoft launches Azure Health Data Services to unify health data and power AI in the cloud."
- Learn more about Microsoft Cloud for Healthcare.
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