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UPAP in an Era of COVID

Everyone is currently living in remarkable and disrupted times during this pandemic. The University of Utah Physician Assistant Program has been no exception.

In late February of this year, I was fortunate to be in Las Vegas, watching my senior daughter (unbeknownst to me) playing her last competitive soccer game. At that time, there were 14 known cases of COVID-19 in the United States. We were staying near the Las Vegas airport, and I recall watching innumerable planes land one evening and had the thought that this might not be an ordinary year.

Fortunately, our St. George campus expansion resulted in the development of a robust video conferencing system. This system allows for lectures to originate from either campus location, and we had the capability to immediately allow our students to learn remotely, from their home. This happened in early March. Our education program was further disrupted when all clinical rotations were paused by the third week of March and we had students essentially out of clinic until near the end of May. During this period of time program leadership, faculty and staff worked diligently to provide unique patient care experiences for students through the COVID hotline in both Salt Lake and Washington county, and rounded out these experiences with simulated patient care activities.

Due to the steady advocacy of leadership both within the program and School of Medicine, this cohort was able to graduate within a month of their original graduation date. We held a unique and unprecedented graduation ceremony which was broadcast to the graduates and their families.

A new group of students arrived in May of 2020. These intrepid students started PA school essentially online in the midst of a pandemic! These students have tackled anatomy, physiology, infectious disease and the first portion of the curriculum entirely remotely. They have been amazingly resilient and have created virtual study groups, shared study documents and innovative ways to come together as a new class.

For fall semester, we have been able to return to community outreach activities such as our migrant farm outreach, root for kids in St. George, and our student run clinics at both Maliheh and the Doctor’s volunteer clinic. We have arranged for socially distant seating arrangements, pods, PPE for things like learning the physical exam or participating in lab sessions. Every facet of the program has been impacted, and it has been inspiring to watch the students, staff and faculty work together to maintain excellence.

As 2020 becomes a longer and longer slog, and 2021 seems to bring a similar menu of challenges, the program is resolved in fulfilling our mission, and our obligation to the wonderful students we so enjoy associating with.