AUGUSTA, Ga. (WJBF) – In the past year, Augusta University found itself on the frontlines of the Covid-19 pandemic. They played a prominent role in the state for testing and the rollout of the vaccine. This week “The Means Report” sits down with the university’s president, Dr. Brooks Keel, to talk about that role. He also looks to the future to how the university would respond should another pandemic hit. Plus, a new hospital is on the horizon in Columbia County; Dr. Keel lets us know how that will shape healthcare in the CSRRA.
Brad Means: Dr. Keel, thank you for joining us. Thanks for always being available for everybody here we appreciate it.
Dr. Brooks Keel: Well thank you for having me Brad and I always look forward to the opportunity to spend time with you and what and I always the point the opportunity to talk about Augusta University that’s for sure.
Brad Means: Congratulations, by the time this hits the airwaves it’ll just be a few days away from your sixth anniversary at AU. It seems like it’s flown by on this end, how about you?
Dr. Brooks Keel: There is no doubt about it. And in fact you know, as you say that I was sitting here thinking is this is the longest I’ve been in any institution since I left Wichita back in 2001 so I hope that bodes well for the remainder of my tenure. But it’s been an incredible six years and what I’m really excited about is what the next six years is gonna be looking like.
Brad Means: Let me ask you this just as an individual and really as an institution, are you all breathing a sigh of relief yet when it comes to the pandemic? Or do you find yourself still in full pandemic mode?
Dr. Brooks Keel: Well, I, yes is the short answer.
Brad Means: Yeah.
Dr. Brooks Keel: I mean we are breathing a little bit of a sigh of relief and in fact before I came on today I looked at our reports and we have five COVID-19 positive patients in the hospital. I mean obviously one COVID 19 positive patient is too many and we know that, but when you think that right out to the first of the year back in January at the peak of this we had over 120 COVID-19 positive patients in the house and it has been steadily declining and it’s been down in single digits for the last, I guess about two weeks now. And that bodes very well I think for the Augusta community and certainly for the university. But and I gotta tell you, our frontline healthcare workers, providers are just worn slap out I mean there’s just no other way to describe it. And yet they need to come to work every day, 24 hours a day and continue to fight this pandemic and so far yeah well we’re beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel and the closer we get to it we realize it’s not a train and I think that’s good news and, but we also wanna be mindful that the world is not safe yet. And we start hearing about these variants and that we’re seeing and that’s always a concern and so we’re guardedly optimistic, we’re gonna go into the fall with our eyes wide open but yet with our eyes cast towards the future and really I’m looking forward to it.
Brad Means: Keel? Is it like college as we remember it or is it a combination of things?
Dr. Brooks Keel: No, this it’s gonna be like college as we remember it, that is our goal. And until we hear otherwise that’s exactly what we’re gonna do. We’re gonna be completely open, classrooms will be at full occupancy, our dormitories will be at full occupancy, we’re going to be having the student activities back like you would expect to see on a college campus and for the most part our courses will be given just like they’ve always been, with exception of those courses that would be online anyhow. So September is gonna be a transition period for us of course and, but even now we are no longer require masks on campus especially for those that are vaccinated and we’re slow to getting back to the normal.
Brad Means: What about any good things that came out of this pandemic and granted we could take the entire rest of the broadcast talking about it. But will there be some key things that you choose to keep going forward?
Dr. Brooks Keel: No, there’s no doubt about that. I mean, you know, you’ve always, you’ve heard this saying you know, never waste a crisis.
Brad Means: Yeah.
Dr. Brooks Keel: We certainly wanna take lessons learned from the pandemic and we’ve learned a heck of a lot of lessons from this particular pandemic. I mean just about how to carry out business. One thing that really comes to mind is that, you know our faculty had just, I don’t see how they’ve done it they’ve just done an unbelievable job in a matter of about two weeks, now this is going back to March a year ago when all of this really started here for us at Augusta and turned a traditional classical campus and a completely online campus in two weeks and then maintained that for an entire semester. But what that taught us is that, you know and online education is not for everybody and we certainly don’t wanna convert Augusta University into an online institution. But what we learned is that you can teach every single course you have online if you have to. And it’s caused a lot of our faculty to say wow, you know, this, we need to take a look at how we can take advantage of what we’ve learned. And I think what you’re gonna see in the years to come is a greater online presence of Augusta University, especially in the graduate-level programs. We’re gonna put a lot of emphasis and effort into that not only to make that sort of programming available to students who may not be able to come, physically be in the classroom, but to help us spread the great things that this university does not only across Georgia and in Southeastern United States but across the entire countries in the world. So we definitely have learned a lot from that. We’ve learned a lot about how to have meetings. I mean, I’ve already told my executive vice-president so we’re gonna be going back to in-person meetings in July. And but at the same time there’s gonna be a place for Teams meetings like we’re having here now and Zoom meetings. I think there’re opportunities to continue to do that and we will do that where it makes sense. You know, teleworking is, we all teleworked for a period of time and I think we learned a lot about that as well. And then maybe some instances in which it’s just more efficient for us to do business by allowing our staff to, just to work out of home. That’s gonna be the exception instead of a rule of course, but we’ve learned that we can do it in some cases and we may actually convert some of our typical office-space employees into home-based employees as we move ahead.
Brad Means: Yeah, please I’m sorry about that. That’s one of the things about these types of meetings. You can’t really, it’s tough to tell when to start talking again because of the connection and whatnot but I wanted to ask you a few questions about the Health Sciences campus downtown beginning with the opening of the Math and Science building that grand new structure down there. Congratulations on it, Dr. Keel and I’ll ask you a few questions about this subject but, why didn’t y’all build it on the Summerville campus? It seems like that would be a better fit, you think not obviously.
Dr. Brooks Keel: Well, I, to be perfectly honest with you when I first heard about this and this was before I actually even had the job here, I had the honor of being, receiving the Alumni of the Year Award in April of 2015 and I was here for a dinner and I sat next to the Dean of the College of Science and Mathematics and he was saying that this is what they were planning to do and you know move it down and I thought to myself, what in the world are you thinking that is the most thing I’ve ever heard in my life. But as soon as I got here and saw what the consolidated university is and the opportunities we had, it made wonderful sense to me and this is probably, he was much smarter than I was no doubt about it, but what it’s allowed us to do is to put those undergraduate students that are interested in science mathematics and many of these kids wanna go on to careers in medicine and dentistry or allied health and nursing or into biomedical research. We’ve gonna put them right down here in the middle of the white coats, where as they’re taking their undergraduate classes they’ll be able to physically see and visually see the medical students and dental students walking across. We wanna articulate them into the clinics and two things the medical students do as an undergraduate student, to help them become more competitive when it gets time for them to apply for these post-graduate and professional skills, but also wanna get them involved in research in a much more robust way and the place or that building is right across the street from where the Interdisciplinary Laboratories and Core Labs that we already have and that that bridge that you see going across the road there is not just a, it’s a visible realization of bringing these students in, but it’s also a practical opportunity for them to go back and forth there.
Brad Means: Has it helped you recruit more faculty? Has it helped more students wanna go to AU because you have such a fancy place down there at the Health Sciences campus for math and science learning?
Dr. Brooks Keel: Well, I think we’ll find out this fall. Our enrollment has increased on average 3% year-over-year since I started in 2015. Even in the face of a pandemic. And I think the great work that our healthcare providers have done throughout the pandemic and the spotlight that was shined on us and has shone on us during that time, allows us to get the word out that if you wanna, if you’re interested in healthcare this is the place to come. So I suspect that it’s gonna contribute to a sustained and robust increase in enrollment as we go ahead and especially as we started getting these kids in this fall.
Brad Means: Moving just beyond the Health Sciences campus heading up Walton Way, if you will the 15th street corridor Walton Way heading back toward the Summerville campus does that feel more collegiate yet? Or is that still a work in progress? I know that there are visions of that sort of just being a wonderful place with a very college town-like feel.
Dr. Brooks Keel: I think we’ve got a ways to go I think in terms of businesses cropping up between Health Sciences campus and Summerville. We’ve made some progress certainly and we wanna see more of that. As we get those undergraduate students down Health Sciences and we look at the possibility of a new dormitory and increase dining facilities and that sort of thing. Those students moving back and forth they’re gonna get to be a very common occurrence. So I think that corridor between Health Sciences and Summerville you know are ripe for all sorts of economic development. Everything from restaurants to apartment complexes, et cetera for housing students and we’re really looking forward and trying to work with the city of Augusta and with any private developers that want to try to help make that happen.
Brad Means: We’re talking to Dr. Brooks Keel, he’s the president of Augusta University. When we come back the university’s prominent role in the pandemic, really the institution that has helped usher us through this whole thing from day one. We’ll cover that as “The Means Report” continues.
Brad Means: Welcome back to “The Mains Report.” We are having a one-on-one conversation with Dr. Brooks Keel, the president of Augusta University a place that’s been very busy the last year and a half or so. It’s really been ground zero when it comes to so many things that have to do with this pandemic and our response to it. Dr. Keel, let me just ask you going back to when you first started to get a feel that AU would play a prominent role in the pandemic response. What, was there a moment? Was it a meeting? Did Governor Kemp call and say I need you? When did the light bulb come on and you realize, hey team, we gotta lead the way.
Dr. Brooks Keel: Well, it really started on March, the early hours of March 15th when a laboratory director you know here reported the very first COVID test results out. It was one o’clock in the morning I remember very distinctly, and it was an incredible moment for us because we realized that COVID-19 wasn’t a disease of another country or the East or West Coast it was right here in Augusta, but then also helped me realize that we were the only laboratory in the whole state besides CDC and Department of Health that had a COVID test. And it was because of the Medical College of Georgia. And because we’re the state’s only public academic medical center, we had that expertise to make that happen. And we wrapped up testing very quickly. Governor Kemp certainly saw that and called and asked if we’d be willing to work with him the department, the Georgia Department of Health and the National Guard to take what we learned and take it statewide and of course we jumped at the opportunity to serve the state as you’d expect us to. For about four months or so we had 30 national guards stationed on our campus 24 hours a day, manning telephones and help schedule folks across the entire state to get testing and along with our folks that stood up our testing facilities here, branch down and help put the set up in another 11 sites across the entire state. So we learned a heck of a lot during that time and again, the governor was able to call on his medical school, on the state’s medical school and the health system trying to help him do that throughout the state and we were delighted to do it.
Brad Means: You know the team of Augusta University and the great State of Georgia has been a pretty formidable combination as it relates to the pandemic response and other things for sure, but equally as powerful as your partnership with Augusta National Golf Club. Do you remember its inception? Was it somebody over there reaching out or vice versa from y’all?
Dr. Brooks Keel: Well you know we’ve been working with Augusta National for a number of years now. They’ve been incredible supporters of us and the great work we’ve done to Cancer Center along with the Community Foundation in the CSRA. And in speaking with their executive director Will Jones we’d always say we’re in a partnership, a long-term partnership. And he contacted us back when we started testing and said what can we do to try to help take testing and make it more robust in this community? They gave us a million dollars at that point and then all that we learned from the testing we’ll be able to quickly turn around and mobilize mass vaccination sites here. The Augusta National Community Foundation stepped up again with another $2 million to help invest in that. So they have invested heavily in our ability to react to this pandemic and our ability to take the expertise that we had and turn it around and get it literally shots in arms and tests for the people that live in this community. So, we couldn’t have done it without their help.
Brad Means: Dr. Keel nobody else has an Augusta National, no other university in the world has an Augusta National. Can you sell that? Can you market that? I know so much of what we say or do as it relates to that institution is based on discretion, how loudly can you toot that horn?
Dr. Brooks Keel: Well, you know the Augusta National is a very proud institution and they’ve always sort of been, taken a back seat if you will. They never really wanna be out in the limelight. I think of the under the current chairman they realized that they wanna play more a visible role in the community and so they helped us and we’re very open about that. They’ve also helped us with the facilities that are under construction, the new community center in the Boys and Girls Club significantly allowing us to build something that’s gonna have a huge impact on the Harrisburg and Laney Walker communities and help us develop that land that’s owned by the MCG Foundation now. So it’ll be a gateway of, for the rest of the campus so. Now I think that under their new, under their leadership now they’ve recognized that they could be a little more out in the open about that and we’re just so proud and fortunate to be able to have that partnership. It’s just really been a wonderful, wonderful folks to work with.
Brad Means: It sure has. It was the very first thing the chairman talked about in his news conference this year during masters week. He’s very, very pleased with the relationship as well as you know. Are y’all better equipped to respond to pandemics in the future? If we got a brand new one tomorrow would you just plug in a template that you have?
Dr. Brooks Keel: Absolutely and there’s no doubt about that. And then on top of that we’ve been able to take a lot of what we went through and put it now into teaching our medical students and our allied health and nursing professionals as well. The kids that are coming out, I say kids now but these young people that are coming out of these programs are gonna be better prepared to handle the next pandemic or the next issue we have in any generation I think of medical professionals. And that’s what’s so unique about what Augusta University is. I mean, of all the 26 campuses in the University System of Georgia we’re the only one that has as part of our bonafide mission the only state designated health sciences medical college and we’re really, really excited and proud about that. So I, we were able to turn that around and put that into practice and to help prepare these young people for what will come their way. Now they’re going to be a whole lot better able to treat any sort of disease that comes along, I think than we’ve ever been.
Brad Means: When will we be able to visit the Augusta University Hospital or the AU Health Facility in Columbia County, a couple of years away?
Dr. Brooks Keel: Probably three years, reality, maybe a little bit longer. We are gonna be spending this next year doing detail planning analysis of what the hospital will look like. I mean healthcare today as a whole lot different than it was seven years ago when we started this process and we wanna make very sure that we’re building a hospital not only for 2021, but for many years to come. So that’s what we’re gonna be doing over the next year. And then once we put a shovel in the ground which we hope will be within the next 12-18 months it’s probably a two-year process to build a hospital maybe a little bit longer. We wanna get it right and wanna do it right, but we wanna get dirt turning out there as quickly as we can. We’re tired of waiting around for the opportunity to start breaking ground.
Brad Means: How many beds will it be versus the one in downtown Augusta just so we can kinda picture the size difference?
Dr. Brooks Keel: Yeah it’ll be a 100-bed hospital that’s what the certificate of need was awarded for, for the hospital itself. Now, you know we own a little 80 acres out in that area the hospital will sit so there will more than likely be medical office buildings and other things built out there, private office buildings for patients to see their physicians, et cetera. So you’ll see more of a medical complex in that. Down here at the mothership about 450-bed hospital, they’ll allow us to build about a 150-bed children’s hospital so that kinda gives you the context in terms of size. It’ll be a hospital that will meet the needs of the folks in Columbia County but we also want it to be a very special high-tech hospital, you can have all the type of facilities that you’d expect in the full-blown academic medical center as well.
Brad Means: Since we last spoke we saw the Piedmont and University combination be announced. Did you all ever think about acquiring a university? And do you think that you all will ever get gobbled up?
Dr. Brooks Keel: We’ve always said we’re complimentary in terms of our strengths and in relative weaknesses. So we’ve always been looking at that. I think Piedmont was a great move to university hospital. We’re really happy for them and know that that will help the community of Augusta quite well. They have about 140 or so academic medical centers in the United States and if you were to ask them they would, you’d probably get three answers that say we’re either already in a partnership, we’re considering going into a partnership, or we’re currently negotiating a partnership and we’re no different from that perspective. We always want to make sure that we can continue our research and our education mission. That is what our hospital was designed to do. It’s the classroom for the Medical College of Georgia and hugely important for us and so, as we start thinking about what makes sense for us moving forward, we certainly wanna take a look if there are any potential partners out there that carry, that have that same passion and that same mission. And if there was a marriage to be made then we certainly wanna take a look at it.
Brad Means: We have about a minute and a half left and I’ll just get you as we continue to celebrate the sixth anniversary of Dr. Brooks Keel as president of AU, what your hopes are for the next six years. Do you want to see something huge happen on the horizon or just maybe shepherd everything that you’ve talked about today, shepherd that along?
Dr. Brooks Keel: And that answers is yes as well and no. We have a number of goals. I wanna be, I wanna have 16,000 students here by the 2030. I wanna be at the top 60 medical school by the year 2030. I wanna have online programs that people in other countries, as well as just in other counties know what a Augusta University is. We wanna take all the great, unique things we have here and literally put it on steroids to make it bigger and better and make us better able to serve the great State of Georgia. Not only for my academic mission, but also for my health commission as well. So the next six years, more of the same but a heck of a lot bigger.
Brad Means: Well, these are exciting times for sure. We love covering the good news that’s coming out of Augusta University under your leadership Dr. Keel so congratulations to you and your team and thank you for your time today.
Dr. Brooks Keel: Thank you so much for the opportunity Brad, look forward to the next time.
Brad Means: Dr. Brooks Keel, president of Augusta University.