Pitt’s pandemic heroes: Communicating all things COVID-19


If your mental picture of Pitt’s Emergency Operations Center resembles the Situation Room in the White House or, perhaps even the war room in “Dr. Strangelove,” Meg Ringler can tell you it isn’t quite that elaborate.

Yes, there is the requisite big conference table (in a room inside the public safety office) with multiple large TV screens, Ringler says, but they’re showing such things as the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 global case map, the Pitt COVID-19 website in draft, examples of websites other universities are using to get out their public health and safety messages, and the news that we’re all obsessively watching.

But most of the 40 or so EOC members — which includes those from public safety and the environmental health and safety groups at Pitt, of course, as well as staff from Student Affairs, the Office of the Provost, Community and Government Relations, and more — are working from home too.

Ringler, director of special projects for the Office of University Communications & Marketing, knew she would be assigned to EOC duties if the center was ever activated, and began preparing for the opening back in January, when it became inevitable that COVID-19 would reach the U.S.

Today she is available 24/7 to make sure the University puts out a clear and consistent message about the changes brought by campus closures, online classes and all the other pandemic-produced adjustments. She updates Pitt’s COVID-19 website and drafts health and safety messages based on state and federal announcements to ensure all Pitt departments reflect the latest regulations.

Ringler was the communications and advocacy manager for Community and Government Relations for about four years before she joined the communications staff a year ago. Back then, her focus was helping everyone on campus understand what was happening with the Bigelow Boulevard closure between the Cathedral of Learning and the William Pitt Union, and encouraging campuswide participation in the Plan for Pitt 2025.

But if you saw signs around campus about social distancing, or Pitt’s hand-washing video, before most employees moved off campus to remote work, those were the early products of Ringler and her teammates at the EOC.

“We are the central people that (Pitt employees) know they can go to” with questions about how to communicate the latest COVID-19 news on their websites, she says. In fact, if a Pitt department is posting messages about COVID-19 that are meant to reflect the latest rules or recommendations from the Pennsylvania Department of Health or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “we do ask that they coordinate that with us,” she says.

Working in the EOC has been an education, Ringler explains. She has helped the team keep clear on the difference between social distancing and quarantine, for instance, and between a mask and a face covering. “Now we’re in lockstep for how we are doing things and it’s a wonderful team to work with,” she says.

On a typical day, Ringler will be part of a call with all EOC members to discuss such topics as student housing and research labs, then write up the day’s decisions for EOC members. When campus administrators start to get a lot of questions on the same subject from students and their parents, for instance, she’ll work to update Pitt’s COVID-19 website to cover these new queries. When the state changes the county’s conditions or makes other announcements, she’ll make sure those are available for the Pitt community as well.

“Now we’re starting to talk about the opposite side of the information — a safe return to campus,” she says. “What are the questions people are going to ask of us” and what is needed to make sure the answers are widely available? “How are we messaging those types of things?”

Where does she see the impact of her work?

“I describe it as contributing to big things in small ways. We’re not the ones setting up Zoom licenses for everyone on campus, but if we can support IT in getting that message out,” that’s worthwhile, she says.

Planning for this fall, she adds: “We’ll never have the answers as quickly as anyone would like, but we’ll have them as quickly as we’re able, and we’ll communicate them along the way.”

Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at martyl@pitt.edu or 412-758-4859.


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