Russell Furr discusses Stanford campus safety in the face of COVID-19

Russell Furr, who is coordinating Stanford’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, discusses how the university stays abreast of news, makes decisions and shares vital information in a dynamic environment.

Russell Furr has been at the center of Stanford decision making around the COVID-19 pandemic. (Image credit: Andrew Brodhead)

Russell Furr’s COVID-19 updates have become a regular presence in Stanford inboxes.

As associate vice provost for Environmental Health & Safety (EH&S), Furr coordinates the university’s response to the novel coronavirus, an effort that marshals leadership and expertise from across Stanford and beyond. Significant developments can occur hourly – often even more frequently – and tens of thousands of people can be affected by each new development.

Furr has more than 20 years’ experience in health and safety leadership in higher education. He became deputy director of EH&S and director of research safety in 2015 and associate vice provost in 2018. In a Q&A with Stanford Report, he describes the university’s approach and how he and his colleagues communicate and listen.


What is Stanford’s approach to addressing the challenges posed by COVID-19?

The top priority is protecting the health and safety of our Stanford community. Our challenge is balancing our response to the pandemic with continuing the essential functions of the university.

Stanford plays a leading role in helping the world with these kinds of situations – pandemics and other health threats – so we’re trying to respond aggressively to the pandemic and to focus on the critical functions here that make up Stanford. We’re thinking of it at all levels – the Stanford community, our surrounding community, the nation and the world.

We can’t wholly solve this problem, but we have an obligation both to protecting our people and helping the communities around us. There’s a line on the map between Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, but it doesn’t work that way in practice. So, we are thinking of our Stanford community and the surrounding community, and we’re also linked to the rest of the Bay Area.

Sometimes we’ve taken action that has been a little ahead of where others have gone, and we are aware that an initiative we take can help other institutions take that same step. Early on, for example, we made a decision to restrict large events on campus, where we would potentially be bringing lots of people here and then sending them back elsewhere. We were trying to do everything we could to slow things down.


What is important for people on campus to know about the steps the university is taking?

First, we are constantly evaluating both what we’ve done and what additional steps we can take. The situation has been really fluid – “dynamic” is the word that keeps coming up.

Also, I hope people understand how seriously leadership and everyone we’ve worked with across campus are about implementing these changes to slow down the spread of the virus and hopefully save lives.

We know this has been really disruptive to projects that people have been planning for months or worked towards for years. Pretty much across the board, we’ve gotten really good support, people saying: I understand. I’m disappointed, but I’ll make the change.

When we’re going through this decision-making process, we understand and keep in mind that Stanford isn’t just a classroom environment or a lab. It really is a community. We have to be able to support those people who make Stanford what it is. So how do we do what’s necessary to try to slow the spread of this outbreak, but in a way that recognizes that communities don’t close?

We have to figure out how we – not just as an institution, but we as individuals – can maintain our focus. If we make sacrifices now, like canceling all activities, and then start back up a week or two later, we haven’t done much good. In previous pandemics and outbreaks, a common phenomenon is that people put a lot of controls in place and it gets better. But then they immediately relax the controls and it comes back.

So, we need to maintain what we’re doing, at least for a while. It’s going to be an ongoing challenge. It’s definitely not a sprint.


What goes into the decision-making at Stanford?

Our incident response structure has a policy group, which works under the leadership of the president. He’s been closely informed and involved. This group includes the provost and a number of other senior leaders, who work to identify the best path for the university. Then we figure out how we make that happen.

The people involved with our response structure are hearing from the people they work with, from students, staff and faculty, and that information gets funneled up to the policy group. Hearing what other people have said and reviewing what people have sent us has been really, really valuable.

We work with people across the university on the operational level, and we also have clinicians and infectious disease experts. That creates an interesting cross section of perspectives. They help flag things that are really insightful and can inform our response. On top of that, we pay attention to source documents that come out of the CDC and other organizations – not just in response to coronavirus, but also previous work to understand pandemic mitigation. Those often serve as a great starting point.


What are your responsibilities?

The university made the decision to go with an incident command system, which creates a reporting chain that allows for better coordination and more rapid response in a crisis. It’s the same framework that would be used for an earthquake or any other major disaster.

The idea is essentially that you want to be able to move quickly, cut across silos and ensure people are operating with the same understanding. Marc [Tessier-Lavigne] asked me to take the role of incident commander, and I formed subgroups that are responsible for different aspects of our response – education, continuity, research, a medical care team. We have a facility and operations group. We have a planning group, a finance group, a human resources group, a safety function and communications. Trying to respond effectively to this incredibly dynamic situation would not be possible without the amazing group of people that have come together to form our response team.

My responsibility is to work with the university leadership and the policy group to define strategic objectives and then work with those team leads to figure out how we make things happen in practice, in reality.


How are you staying in touch with others, such as peer institutions and public health officials?

We’ve been both been sharing what Stanford is doing and also learning from other institutions.

We have networks with a lot of the major organizations – the Ivies, PAC-12 and a cross-section of other universities. People are sharing what they’re actively doing, but also posting questions about struggles they are facing. We are also in close contact with the University of California, because they have a robust response effort that’s similar to ours. They’ll often hear things before we do or vice versa.

Our clinicians have a standing relationship with Santa Clara County public health officials, so they’re in contact with them and the CDC. We try to stay abreast of what the county is doing because of the regional response effort. Of course, they are very busy these days, so we try to be fairly self-sufficient, but still keep in close touch, follow their guidance and reach out with specific questions. We need to make sure we’re on the same page.


What have you learned as this situation has unfolded?

Obviously, you learn lots of very specific bits of information when you start diving in deep on a specific topic. But I think the bigger takeaway has been how much our perspectives can change in a short amount of time.

We can’t make a decision one day and think that we won’t have to revisit it, because once we make a decision, the circumstances on campus can change. We have to be willing to go back and continue to reevaluate. Regardless of what we said on day one, we may have to do more on day three or on day five.

We’ve been monitoring this since mid-January with a committee looking at public health issues. We were doing routine calls, watching what was going on in Wuhan, and starting to help the university craft decisions. Then cases started happening here. Now the circumstances feel very different, in a way that was hard to envision a week or 10 days ago.