Advocacy in Action: Temple Law Students Take On Leadership Roles During COVID-19 Pandemic

The mid-spring arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic threw into disarray just about every aspect of life for Temple Law students, as it did for students across the nation. But for several Law Owls enrolled in one of Temple’s many experiential courses, it changed more than where they did their work – it changed the work itself. And, like so many Temple Law students and graduates, these students embraced the opportunity to lead.

Rising 3L Connor McElwee, for example, was participating in the Center for Compliance and Ethics Practicum working in healthcare compliance with Temple University Health System. There, he was gaining firsthand experience in understanding the compliance and regulatory risks of a major healthcare organization, including work in privacy matters related to HIPAA and HITECH (the regulations that address information privacy, data security and breach response processes for healthcare compliance officers). In response to COVID-19, McElwee was asked to review and summarize new emergency HIPAA waivers issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in connection with COVID – 19 and to research the rapidly emerging guidance made by the Health Resources and Services Administration, a division of HHS, regarding new flexible interpretation of some standard regulations.
“Hospitals were about to be put under an enormous level of stress and strain. In order to best serve patients afflicted by COVID-19 and to allow hospital systems to operate and maximize efficiency under this new pressure, certain enforcement standards of HIPAA rules were being waived or relaxed,” McElwee explained. “I had to present my analysis in a way that was direct, to the point, and clearly summarized the evolving changes made in temporary regulations published by the agencies each week. This way the hospital system could be confident they were best serving their patients while staying compliant under the law.”

Brent Hackett, another rising 3L, was also working for a healthcare system, but with a focus on intellectual property. In his role at Thomas Jefferson University Innovation Pillar, which handles the patent portfolio for the university, including all submission and procurement of patents and licensure of inventions by the faculty, Hackett helped to prepare communications with the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) in furtherance of securing patents on inventions for TJU. But with the arrival of COVID-19, his focus shifted to inventions that were directed to the novel coronavirus, including potential vaccine formulations among others. He also did work concerning a licensing deal for a previously patented vaccine formulation that may prove to be a useful platform against COVID-19.

Meanwhile, at pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson, rising 2L Thomas McCann was working as an end-to-end strategic lead focusing on 3D Printing in Healthcare. In response to COVID-19, 3D printing was leveraged quite a bit to help with shortages in PPE and other areas to help patients and healthcare practitioners. “One of my first projects was to support ventilator splitters, which allows for ventilator multiplexing and treating multiple patients with one ventilator,” McCann says. “I have also seen 3D printing being used to print respirators, face shields, mask extenders, etc. We are currently working on other initiatives addressing supply shortages that we hope to bring to our communities.”

Students working at the City Solicitor’s office were also working to put existing resources to new use, helping officials convert the Liacouras Center to a temporary hospital after Temple offered the arena to the city for use as a surge facility. They worked closely with their City Law Department instructor to research the law and declarations of emergency, engage in risk assessments, and review liability-sharing agreements concerning the medical personnel and electronic medical records platforms.

Of course, hospitals were not the only service institutions affected by the pandemic – courts, including Philadelphia Family Court, were forced to close indefinitely, creating a perilous situation for people seeking Protection from Abuse (PFA) orders. Rising 3L Anna Mattis, whose work at Women Against Abuse couldn’t be done from home, was asked by her supervisor to create a resource guide for COVID-19 needs and a referral sheet for those seeking PFAs during the crisis. She also did some research on how family courts were handling the pandemic and ways in which they were continuing hearings.

Grace Harris was concerned about a different group of people who had been put in harm’s way by COVID-19: those who were incarcerated and unable to socially distance or otherwise take protective measures. “I was desperately trying to figure out ways to help get people out of jail, given the horrifying situation in prisons and jails right now and the grave risk COVID-19 has posed to incarcerated people,” she explains. “I was feeling pretty powerless as a law student as I couldn’t be actively writing motions or advocating for peoples’ release.” While Harris wasn’t currently doing experiential work that could be shifted to address this concern, she took up the project anyway – and, as it turned out, was far from powerless.

“So many attorneys were working fast to get release motions in front of judges so I started reading district court opinions responding to some of those motions,” she says. “I realized that while some judges were recognizing the danger to incarcerated people and granting motions for release, far more judges were denying them for similar flawed, illogical reasons (like there being no known cases at the particular facility, that the facility had already taken some precautions, etc.). I thought it would be useful for defense attorneys to use some of the helpful language in these opinions and head off the arguments that judges were using to deny them. I thought that one document that had a lot of these opinions cited and pulled out useful language would help overburdened public defenders and other defense attorneys to access the rapidly developing case law more quickly and easily.”

Once Harris had compiled enough opinions, she started sharing the guide as far and wide as she could so as many defense attorneys in the country would be able to use it, getting good feedback from practitioners across the country that the guide was helpful and that they used it to write more release motions.

JoAnn Gonzalez also drew on her research and fact-gathering skills at her independent practicum with Mintzer Sarowitz Zeris Ledva & Meyers, LLP, where the majority of her work focused on subrogation law. When COVID-19 hit, the firm asked her to track state responses to the pandemic and how each impacted businesses in the state and throughout the U.S.

Temple Law students have always been eager to lead, and have been very good at it. And while working through a pandemic took Temple’s reputation for “real-world law” to a new level, Temple Law students were more than up to the task. “COVID-19 forced federal agencies to respond quickly by waiving or relaxing certain enforcement of some established regulations,” recalls McElwee, the compliance student. “Compliance departments needed to rapidly adapt and adjust. The situation was novel and the task of researching these changes that were being applied in real time to address a national emergency was exciting. Having the opportunity to do legal work in an area where the rules were changing each week was unlike any work I had ever done.”