October 04, 2020

Resilience and adaptability in the COVID-19 era

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All of us at the School of Medicine have had to learn new ways of living, learning, and working this year, and we’ve had to do it in an atmosphere of great uncertainty. Even now, seven months after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, I continue to be impressed and inspired by the resilience and adaptability of our faculty, staff, and students. I’d like to highlight just a few examples of the many ways various areas of our school have risen to the challenges of these unprecedented times.

Given travel restrictions and health concerns, candidates for our residency and fellowship programs have not been able to travel to Birmingham for interviews, so our Graduate Medical Education Office and residency and fellowship directors have had to find innovative ways to introduce them to our programs, our academic medical center, and our city from a distance. They’ve used all the platforms available to them, from Twitter chats and takeovers to virtual meet-and-greets with program directors and current residents on Zoom. Two important tools are new videos that the school’s communications office helped create. One video highlights our institutional excellence and the many benefits of training at UAB. The other video showcases the city of Birmingham as “a place for everyone,” and spotlights many of its most appealing attractions and characteristics. I’d also like to share an informative graphic highlighting the excellence of our residency and fellowship programs that our school’s communications team helped produce to assist with our recruitment efforts. These will no doubt be powerful recruitment assets for years to come, I invite you all to share the videos and graphic in your communications.

UAB has long been regarded as a research powerhouse, and our research excellence is once again being recognized by one of the nation’s most prominent medical leaders. As recently announced, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is one of two keynote speakers, along with Dr. Kathleen Neuzil, director of the Center for Vaccine Development at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, at the upcoming COVID-19 Research Symposium. Hosted by the School of Medicine and the Hugh Kaul Precision Medicine Institute, the COVID-19 Research Symposium will highlight SARS-CoV-2 research and clinical trials on a global, national, and institutional level. Speakers will discuss and present on topics such as the NIH's involvement in research since the onset of COVID-19, global vaccine development, basic science surrounding COVID-19, therapeutics, and population health. The symposium takes place online via Zoom on Wednesday, October 28, from 8 a.m.-12:30 p.m. It is open to all trainees, faculty, and staff at UAB. Attendees must register in advance. More information and a full agenda is available at go.uab.edu/covid19-symposium.

Finally, over the next few Dean’s Messages, I’ll be highlighting different areas of our school that played key roles in the development and rollout of GuideSafe, the COVID-19 reentry platform developed by a team of experts here at UAB. This month, I’m shining a spotlight on our Department of Pathology. Reentry would not have been possible this fall without a strategy for comprehensive, fast, and reliable testing, which was led by Pathology Chair Dr. George Netto and Assistant Professor of Laboratory Medicine Dr. Sixto Leal. Here are a few of the key achievements:

• The UAB Department of Pathology Fungal Reference Lab, directed by Dr. Leal, worked closely with UAB Hospital labs and private sector biomedical companies to scale up and support the GuideSafe Entry Testing program. COVID-19 testing was provided free of charge for all students at Alabama colleges and universities prior to the fall 2020 return to campus, making it the largest-scale higher education testing initiative in the nation. Thanks to the heroic efforts of Dr. Leal and his team, more than 75,000 students received GuideSafe COVID-19 reentry testing prior to returning to campus this fall.

• To date, UAB has performed 82,295 total molecular tests targeting SARS-CoV-2. Currently, UAB performs nearly 900 tests per day for patients, employees, and the community. STAT testing with one-hour turnaround time is available to help rapidly identify and triage infected individuals presenting to the Emergency Department. Additionally, multiple high throughput test platforms enable the evaluation of a large number of samples with high accuracy, with a 24-hour turnaround time enabling informed medical intervention that improves patient outcomes, and blocks further spread of the virus within our hospital system and community.

• With the help of talented faculty in molecular testing, UAB Pathology launched a laboratory-developed test March 17, placing UAB among the first academic medical centers to offer in-house testing. UAB Pathology also launched a second COVID-19 RNA testing platform with less than two hours' turnaround time.

• Current capacity of COVID-19 RNA testing is 1,200+ daily with a turnaround time of less than 24 hours.

• UAB Pathology’s ability to scale up to high-throughput testing platforms has allowed the department to support rural and affiliate hospitals throughout Jefferson County and Alabama. This includes underserved populations and supporting the Alabama Department of Public Health, as well as community hospitals throughout the state.

You can read more about the incredible innovation and creativity shown by our pathology professionals around COVID-19 testing here.

These are just a few examples of the extraordinary commitment and innovation shown by individuals across the School of Medicine as we continue to meet our missions of medical education, research, and patient care at the highest levels of excellence under difficult circumstances. Please know that I value and appreciate the efforts of every one of our faculty, staff, and students—by continuing to work together and take care of each other, we will will overcome whatever obstacles we encounter during this challenging time.