Students should not have to organize their health around the disorganization of the health center


I got a text from my roommate immediately after getting out of my three-hour seminar, warning me, “This line is something else.” I intended, like most of the student body, to go to the Pattie Groves Health Center walk-in hours to get vaccinated for meningitis. The outbreak, as noted in the email from Marcella Runell Hall to all students, was no longer isolated to UMass, having been recently diagnosed at Smith College. We were encouraged in bolded letters “to receive vaccines for both meningitis serotypes.” 

When I passed the Career Development Center, a freshly-vaccinated student who was just leaving grimly told me about the wait, and even before entering the building, I could see what awaited me. We were pressed up against the glass doors in the lobby, and students and their belongings spilled from chairs, packed in the corridors of the tiny building. We were one disjointed, poorly formed snake of a line. At a certain point, the Director of the Health Center, Karen Engell, pulled those without the school’s insurance aside to get an estimate of how many there were. Six minutes later, she shooed us back into the line, effectively moving students with the College’s insurance ahead and disrupting the existing order. 

After reaching the front of the line, a student would be handed a clipboard with an “Informed Consent” form and an informational sheet about meningitis. They were to fill it out, and then wait their turn with the others who had made it through. I watched in disbelief as students who squeezed to get into the back of the ever-forming line were instructed by staff to wait outside the building until the line had visibly shortened. They stood outside, jackets zipped, mitted hands shoved into pockets.

Forty minutes later, and no closer to the glass window than when I arrived (due to the reshuffling), Engell reentered the lobby and announced that she was surprised by the student turnout and informed us that she thought the Health Center would have enough vaccines only for those who already filled out the necessary paperwork. Everyone else would have to come back the next day. 

Beyond complaining about this bad experience, which wasted the time and energy of so many students rightfully concerned about their health, I’d like to give some concrete feedback.

Here’s what the Health Center did: They emailed, give or take, 2,200 students over the weekend, urging them to get vaccinated for meningitis. They offered walk-in vaccinations from 3 - 6 p.m. They made people wait outside in the cold when the lobby got crowded. They were more concerned with separating those with off-campus insurance from those with the school’s insurance, rather than prioritizing those who take Smith and UMass classes. They ran out of vaccinations. They extended the walk-in hours to one more day, from 1 - 4 p.m. 

Here’s what the Health Center should have done: include the “Informed Consent” sheet and all other necessary paperwork in the original email, so that students can fill it out on their own time. Include in the email what students must bring when they have an appointment. Also include a list of nearby minute clinics, and resources on how to get to them, so students can vaccinate themselves over the weekend, when the email was originally sent. Prioritize and urge those with compromised immune systems to get vaccinated. Make vaccinations by-appointment rather than walk-ins, and include a link to schedule an appointment in the email. I futilely waited in a line for forty minutes, while others spent more time, to be sent home without the proper protection against our Smith and UMass courses the next day. Offer vaccinations all day during business hours (8 a.m. - 7 p.m.) rather than for only three hours.

In short, they were ill-equipped to handle the student body.

Surely this is not the first bacterial/viral outbreak to affect the Mount Holyoke population and its immediate community. It seems awfully shortsighted for the Health Center to be surprised by student turnout at the walk-in hours when so many of us take courses off-campus, or spend a weekend in Northampton and Amherst. At the very least, they should have included a poll to see how many students were interested in coming in, so they could have prepped accordingly.

This goes beyond my concern as an irate student, and stems from issues about what a Health Center represents for the College. Students come to the Health Center because we trust that our on-campus providers will meet our health concerns. Instead, we have been turned away and forced to accommodate a poorly organized operation.