URI Health Services Director Ellen Reynolds at center of URI response to COVID-19

Richmond resident’s personal touch includes focus on training, community health

KINGSTON, R.I. — July 30, 2020 — Ellen Reynolds had only been on the job as the University of Rhode Island’s director of Health Services for about a year-and-a-half when she received disturbing news the morning of Oct. 21, 2014.

A student who had been to Liberia, the African country being decimated by ebola, was back on campus and exhibiting symptoms consistent with the often-fatal disease. Under her and her medical director’s supervision, University Emergency Medical Services student volunteers responded to the individual in full protective gear–Tyvec protective suits, respirators, goggles and gloves to transport them by URI ambulance to South County Hospital.

Later, Reynolds informed University leaders that the student had tested negative for ebola.

But since that scare, Reynolds, who now has the dual roles of assistant vice president for health and wellness and health services director, has only become more convinced that preparation is the central component to any successful public health response at URI, whether it is for COVID-19, mumps, measles, or West Nile Virus.

As recently as January, the lessons learned along the way helped the Richmond resident and her team respond decisively to a suspected case of COVID-19. Eventually, the student tested negative for the virus, but she was immediately isolated, meals were delivered to her door and Health Services personnel used technology to check in with her daily. In addition, the student’s roommates were removed immediately from the shared room, tested and quarantined for two weeks. None of the students came down with the disease.

“On the first day of classes for the spring semester, we received a call about a student who screened positive for travel history and symptoms, but we were ready. We had a plan and had drilled with our campus partners in Housing and Residential life and Dining Services. The woman came to the center and was immediately masked. She was placed in an identified exam room and she was treated by only one provider. Following her evaluation she was  isolated  in her room and we spoke  with her roommates and their parents about our plan.”

Reynolds, who earned her bachelor’s degree at URI in 1991 in Human Development, Counseling and Family Studies, said that knowing the drill means “frequent training for our doctors, nurses, EMS responders and staff in how to put on and take off personal protective equipment, as well as infection control precautions, contact tracing, inventory control and supply management.”

That focus prepared her for the role of her life–directing the University’s public health response to the COVID-19 outbreak and anchoring the University’s initial response with the Office of Emergency Management, including helping students studying abroad return home safely and quickly, making sure that faculty, staff and students on campus had regular updates and working closely with officials at the Rhode Island Department of Health.

In February, as a URI team was formed to bring students home, first from China, and then other countries and to inform the community about the steps it was taking, Reynolds was often the primary person talking directly with those students and their parents about how the students would be brought home as safely and quickly as possible. Through the din of constantly ringing phone calls and other conversations at the University’s Emergency Operations Center, Reynolds retained her smile and calm manner, and even managed to squeeze in time for interviews with the media.

“Assistant Vice President Reynolds was recognized as a Fellow of the American College Health Association, an honor accorded to those who provide outstanding service to the association and have demonstrated superior professional stature and performance in the college health field,” said Kathy Collins, vice president for Student Affairs.  “Ms. Reynolds has provided exceptional leadership as we navigate the global pandemic. She does her work with a strong commitment to social justice and respect for all. We are incredibly proud of her accomplishments as a URI alum. I am incredibly proud of her leadership and student-centered approach to the services we provide.”

Reynolds, who holds a master’s degree in health care administration from Salve Regina University, was in the midst of her continuing studies to earn her doctorate in educational leadership from Johnson & Wales University while dealing with the pandemic.

“A pandemic is, by its nature, the intersection of public health and emergency management,” said Sam Adams, URI’s Emergency Management director and assistant director of Public Safety. “Our effective response to COVID-19 depends on a thorough understanding of epidemiology, health care delivery, incident management, and crisis communication. In all of these respects, I couldn’t ask for a better partner than Ellen Reynolds as URI navigates the complexities of this historic event. Her knowledge, poise, and dedicated leadership bring out the best in everyone in our team.”

Even through long work hours that stretch into the night and weekends, you’ll find Reynolds on numerous video meetings with boundless energy, ready with a quip and always prepared with the right answers and to do whatever it takes to solve a problem.

Heady stuff for a woman who was unsure of her career path as a URI student. But in her senior year at URI, she landed an internship at South County Hospital in the medical social work and discharge planning unit, which paved the way to a full-time job at the hospital in 1991 and a lifelong career in health-care management.

In 2003, her mother, Julia who worked at URI, saw a job posting for associate director of URI Health Services, and she told Reynolds, “This job description looks as though it was written for you.”

She loved her position and team at South County Hospital, but took the leap when offered the job by then-Director Chad Henderson.

“When I found out I was going to work for a retired Navy Captain, I thought, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’ But Chad was a wonderful mentor and he encouraged and supported my involvement in many opportunities at URI, that really helped to prepare me for the role I am in now,” Reynolds said.

Certified by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Disaster Preparedness for Hospitals and Health Care Organizations within the Community Infrastructure, Reynolds has much to be proud of, including her comprehensive and inclusive approach to University health care and public health management. But nothing pleases her more than URI Health Services being one of only 17 college health centers nationwide to be accredited by the Joint Commission, which accredits and certifies more than 22,000 hospitals, health care organizations and programs in the United States.

“This is the gold standard, and the University is in select company with this accreditation,” Reynolds said. “This is a tribute to our fabulous team of board certified physicians, registered nurses and nurse practitioners, clinical lab assistants, pharmacists and health care support staff. What they deliver to our students far exceeds what we see in ambulatory care centers around the country.”

Health Services logs more than 28,000 student visits a year for a wide variety of health care needs, including acute care for injuries and illness, physical exams, allergy treatment, psychiatry and gynecology.

She said the University has an outstanding Emergency Medical Services, which consists of about 100 student volunteers, and provides year-round, 24/7 ambulance service to the campus and mutual aid to South Kingstown.

“EMS covers every major concert, sporting event and are even hired by major organizations that run events at and from URI, such as Rhode Island Special Olympics and Bike MS.”

And now just a few months removed from the original outbreak, Reynolds is at the center of planning for the fall semester, and how to resume operations in the safest manner possible for the entire URI community.