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Healthcare teams at Cornell Health are only allowing pre-screened individuals to enter the building, as care moves online.

March 30, 2020

Medicine and Therapy Go Virtual as Cornell Health Shifts to ‘Pandemic Operations’

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With social distancing the new norm, Cornellians are practicing wellness virtually — through zoom meditation and therapy over the phone.

In light of COVID-19, Cornell Health has officially shifted to “pandemic operations” to protect patients and employees from exposure to the coronavirus. Most health center staff are now working remotely and providing healthcare online, by phone, secure message and video, according to Sharon McMullen, assistant vice president of student and campus life for health and wellbeing.

“If you come to Cornell Health, the doors will be locked and our healthcare teams will only allow pre-screened individuals to enter the building,” said Anne Jones, director of medical services at Cornell Health.

According to Jones, Cornell Health is “doing our part to meet student needs and help to reduce strain on community health resources, like the local hospital and urgent care centers.”

As a result, Cornell Health is now offering limited therapy by phone, according to Robin Hamlisch, interim director of Cornell Health Counseling and Psychological Services.

According to the Cornell Health website, students located in New York can now receive CAPS counseling by phone, while out-of-state students can receive phone consultations, check-ins and referrals. Cornell Health will also help students with referrals to local mental health providers and transfers of their prescriptions to local pharmacies.

As Cornell Health works through regulatory challenges to providing therapy across state lines, it hopes to provide more out-of-state services, according to its website.

However, peer-led counseling, according to the Empathy, Assistance and Referral Services website, “are suspended until further notice.”

As usual, 25-minute counseling appointments are free for all students, while 50-minute appointments have a $10 co-pay. The co-pay applies to all students except for those under the SHP+ plan, which has no co-pay.

While Cornell Health works to eventually transition portions of its current phone therapy to video conversations, students and clinicians have found benefits and drawbacks to the face-to-face version of digital therapy.

“While students who are used to formal counseling may find talking with a therapist by phone a bit strange at first — and both parties may miss the facial and body-language cues — other students report that they find phone conversation very convenient, and less intimidating than the clinical office setting,” Hamlisch said.

Those who receive mental health treatment outside of Cornell Health have also faced changing options, with many now also receiving virtual therapy.

“It would have been harder to transition to therapy by phone if I didn’t already know my therapist, but I had already gotten to know her in person, so it is fine,” said Skyeler McQueen ’21, who receives talk therapy from an Ithaca provider.

McQueen has found some new challenges in getting therapy at home, because the process of traveling to and waiting for her therapist used to give her some time to focus and gather her thoughts.

“When I go to my therapist office, I have to drive there and sit there for five minutes waiting. I have time to focus on my feelings more,” said McQueen. “Now, I go from Netflix or homework to therapy instantly, and I have less time to get in the right headspace.”

For students who are anxious because of COVID-19, Cornell Health recommended the strategies described in the article “Taking Care of Your Mental Health in the Face of Uncertainty” by Doreen Marshall, the vice president of programs at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Marshall’s recommendations include self-care, spending time in nature and staying connected with family and friends virtually.

In addition to talk therapy, Cornell Health is working to provide online preventative health and wellness programming, including hosting mindfulness meditation using Zoom.

For students looking to maintain their mental and physical health through exercise, Cornell is now offering virtual group fitness classes, including yoga, zumba and high-intensity interval training.

Despite the risk to their own personal safety by leaving their homes, some Cornell medical staff continue to report to work to care for students with urgent primary health and pharmacy needs.

But as essential staff, Cornell Health asks that students help protect both clinicians and each other by practicing social distancing.

“We are here for you,” Jones said. “Please stay home for us.”

Correction, April 1, 2:48 p.m.: A previous version of this article misstated the co-pay for 50-minute counseling appointments. The $10 co-pay applies to all students, except for those enrolled in the SHP+ plan, not just non-student health plan members.