COVID-19 Campus Health Coordinator Katie Gravens Returns to Retirement

Katie Gravens came out of retirement in August 2020 to begin working at Oberlin as the Campus Health Coordinator to navigate the College’s COVID-19 response. In her role, she coordinated the College’s vaccination effort, contact tracing, and its COVID-19 health communications all while consulting with the Lorain County Public Health Department regarding changes to quarantine and isolation practices. Prior to this position, Gravens worked in higher education as a program director and nursing faculty member for Lakeland Community College. She also served as a nurse practitioner with the Lorain County Public Health Department. On Dec. 22, Gravens will return to retirement, after a successful tenure at Oberlin.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What brought you to Oberlin?

I had actually retired. I taught nursing and was the director of a nursing program, and after I retired I was looking for a part-time position. Then COVID-19 hit and everything that I was participating in — volunteering and taking classes — it all came to a halt. A friend sent me this position description. Although it was full-time, I thought it sounded interesting, so I interviewed with Chief of Staff David Hertz and then with President Carmen Twillie Ambar. I took a full-time position because I thought it sounded like a challenge, and it has been a challenge, but it’s been a great experience. I’ve really enjoyed Oberlin. Everybody has been great, and it’s given me an opportunity to work with Lorain County Public Health Department and University Hospitals.

Could you describe some of the biggest challenges you’ve had to face in the position?

COVID-19 was an unknown, right? We were entering into something that no higher education institution or the country — at least in this timeframe — had ever experienced. When I started, Oberlin had most of their protocols set up. Testing was just beginning, and the decisions to de-densify the campus and shift to three trimesters had already been made. It was up to me to continue working on those things and to set up a contact tracing team. No one had ever done contact tracing. Johns Hopkins University had a contact tracing course, so there were a number of employees from various areas on campus who offered to help. All of them did the Johns Hopkins course and became certified. That was kind of fun and interesting. I then worked with the health department in setting up a protocol to determine what we would do with isolation and quarantine.

What are your thoughts on the Omicron variant? Do you have any worries about a winter holiday spike?

Like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director keeps saying, we’re still having problems with the Delta variant. At the moment, Omicron is not a big issue. It’s beginning to increase, but Delta is still what’s out there. The cases that we have seen and the spread we have seen at Oberlin have all been based on social interactions in which students were close together and not wearing masks. So my advice would be to wear your mask in indoor settings with your friends, and if you’re going to be eating, then make sure that you’re distanced while you’re removing your mask. I think in the time before people go home, they just need to be more mindful of that because we are seeing it spread. It is happening. People have to use common sense measures. If you’re sick, please stay home; don’t go interact with other people. If you are with other people, wear your mask and make sure they wear their mask — that’s how we’ll prevent the spread.

Is it true that you’re moving on from your position at Oberlin?

I’m going to retire on Dec. 22. Actually, my initial contract ended on June 30, 2021. At the time, cases were low and things were very quiet, and President Ambar said, “Well, why don’t you stay part-time, you know, eight to sixteen hours a week, in case we need you.” And I said, “Oh, sure. I can work a couple days a week.” But that has not happened. It’s a little bit more than I want at this stage in my life, so I am going to retire. That’s where Special Assistant to the President for Student Affairs Clare Rahm comes in. She and I have been working together so that she will begin to assume the coordination of COVID-19. We’re still hoping to hire somebody additional to help with things. But again, as you know, it’s really difficult to hire people at this time. We’d like somebody with a medical background. My background is in nursing, and I’ve done a lot of work in public health. But I think our policies are well setup. Administrative Manager Emily Speerbrecher in the President’s Office and I have worked closely. We do have somebody now that we’ve hired — an Oberlin graduate, actually, Catherine Mavrich. She graduated last May and works at the Lorain County Public Health Department. She is helping us with evening and weekend contact tracing.

I have truly loved working here. I’ve loved the students, how honest everybody is when I talk with them, and how intelligent they are. Last year, I would have students sending me articles from Johns Hopkins and all these very reputable sources defending their point. I really enjoyed that. I’ve loved walking through campus and hearing the Conservatory students playing music, especially last year when they couldn’t practice inside. It’s been a great experience, and I will be back to visit.

Do you have any plans for your retirement?

Well, I’m having a new grandchild in February in Chicago, and then I have two grandsons in Washington, D.C. I’m heading to D.C. in January and then to Chicago in February. I’m going to travel and take classes and go to the gym and read and all those kinds of things. And I’ve loved working with the Review. I’ve talked to many of the people on the Review, and it’s been a nice relationship.