January 2021

Elaine Eschenbacher

Before COVID-19 hit, Elaine Eschenbacher was leading civic and community engagement at Augsburg University. After being tapped by the first lady of Minnesota and Augsburg’s president, she is now helping the state get through the pandemic.

Eschenbacher is now the higher education operations lead for the COVID-19 Testing Work Group in at the State Emergency Operations Center (SEOC). “In this role I collaborate closely with other members of the testing workgroup, leaders at colleges and universities, the team of epidemiologists at MDH that focuses on higher education, and others, depending on the project,” Eschenbacher said. “I’ve worked on things like planning and data modeling to project the testing capacity need, consulting with specific institutions on outbreaks to help them with testing options and working with MDH staff on guidance for higher education on testing — along with many other projects.”

So how did Eschenbacher go from a civics and community engagement leader to helping run the state’s higher education COVID-19 response? At the beginning of the pandemic, the Governor’s office was looking for professionals to fill certain roles at the SEOC and with Gwen Walz being a fellow in the Sabo Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg, there was a natural fit, said Eschenbacher.

“It’s in Paul Pribbenow’s nature to answer a public call and under his leadership Augsburg has done that in a number of different ways, this is just the latest example,” Eschenbacher said. “As an institution and as an individual we could fill a clear and present need — also, when the first lady asks for you, you find a way to say ‘yes’.”

But Eschenbacher remains connected to Augsburg. She is still employed by the university which has a contract with the state for her time and it was important that she could continue her work in the Sabo Center for Democracy and Citizenship once her time at the state is over.

Through some tough times Eschenbacher has seen some of the strengths of higher education. “During the fall, when we were doing the most testing and had the highest state-wide positivity rate, higher education institutions had much lower positivity rates,” Eschenbacher said. “This speaks to the success of the mitigation strategies that higher education institutions have implemented and their work with the Department of Health.”

With the third wave of the pandemic, which included Thanksgiving and winter breaks, coming to a close and a vaccine being rolled out, the role higher education plays is shifting. “I know higher education institutions would like to offer the vaccine — and I hope that can happen,” Eschenbacher said. “One thing I do know is higher education institutions could play a critical role in educating people about the vaccine. Not just their immediate campus community but the broader community as well.”

“I hope that coming out of this pandemic we place more value on our individual and public health.”

By Tom Lancaster