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UTHSC Hosts Online Coronavirus Symposium

UTHSC leaders hosted an online symposium today to bring information to the community about the coronavirus. Dr. Jon McCullers, at podium, is speaking of the origins and spread of the virus.

More than 1,500 people registered for a two-hour online coronavirus symposium hosted by the University of Tennessee Health Science Center today. Leaders from UTHSC’s College of Medicine, College of Dentistry, and Regional Biocontainment Laboratory, as well as the Shelby County Health Department, shared the latest information on the development of the virus; its spread globally, nationally, and locally; and efforts led by the university and its partners to contain it.

“Since the beginning of this crisis, UTHSC has been engaged,” Scott Strome, MD, executive dean of the College of Medicine, said in opening the session. As evidence, he pointed to UTHSC’s coronavirus resource website, uthsc.edu/coronavirus; the UTHSC/City of Memphis drive-thru testing site at the Mid-South Fairgrounds; ongoing research in the Regional Biocontainment Laboratory on treatments for the virus; and the new on-campus laboratory established to expand capacity and provide rapid analysis for COVID-19 testing.

“Today’s information sharing symposium is simply an extension of UTHSC’s efforts to get the word out into the community and to help our neighbors, and indeed all Americans, understand and deal with this crisis,” Dr. Strome said.

Jon McCullers, MD, the senior executive associate dean of the College of Medicine, presented a “Memphis Roadmap” for dealing with the coronavirus.

This calls for improved data collection and sharing of testing numbers, cases and outcomes; massive expansion of public health services; increased testing that reaches to the underserved areas of the city; and a coordinated response, not just within the county and surrounding municipalities, but across state and county lines.

While a vaccine may be years away, it is crucial to establish procedures and plan for an expected peak of cases in mid-to-late April or May, as well as for subsequent waves of the virus expected in the future.

Alisa Haushalter, DNP, RN, director of the Shelby County Health Department and an associate professor of Advance Practice and Doctoral Studies in the UTHSC College of Nursing, said that so far 8,900 tests have been done in the county, with an 8.9 percent positive rate. Still, testing remains “seriously underrepresented” in some areas of the city, she said

Shelby County has 789 confirmed cases of the virus, with the highest positive rate in the 20 to 40 age group, and a total of 17 deaths. Dr. Haushalter said coordination of response to the virus is improving across county lines and in Arkansas and Mississippi, but there is more work to do.  A data sharing system is lacking, she said.

Nick Hysmith, MD, assistant professor of Pediatrics, Infectious Diseases at UTHSC and medical director of infection prevention at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital, discussed hospital preparedness to combat emerging infections. ‘It’s important, and I think every hospital system does have an integrated pandemic plan that’s embedded into their emergency/disaster preparedness plan. We have this across the system here in Memphis, and it is important that it is regularly updated and that the plan be easily scaled up based on the issue that is presented to the hospital.”

James C. Ragain, DDS, MS, PhD, FICD, FACD, dean of the College of Dentistry, said though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention weeks ago recommended that elective dental procedures be stopped or postponed, dentists have a major role in the coronavirus battle. “As dental health care providers, we have special skill sets that we can use in this crisis,” he said. “We can serve as physician extenders, nursing extenders, we can do screenings, we can be runners, we can help out in any way possible. At this time, we need need to step up.” 

Colleen Jonsson, PhD, director of the UTHSC Regional Biocontainment Laboratory, described the facility as a “regional resource in Memphis.’’ She said her entire staff has been reassigned to work on research related to the coronavirus. The team is trying to discover therapeutics to treat the virus, both from existing FDA approved drugs and from new compounds that might be effective. The researchers are exploring how to disinfect N95 masks for reuse, as well as working to better understand the characteristics of the virus to determine why it is more severe in some individuals than others.

Dr. Strome said the next step, beyond identifying and treating those with the virus, is to develop testing to identify who has antibodies to it and would be safe to go back into the community.

In closing the symposium, he had a message for health care professionals on the front lines of battling the virus. “You can’t take care of others unless you take care of yourselves,” he said. “So please remember to take time out during your day for your own mental health and well-being, as we all struggle during this very difficult time.”

To to view the symposium in its entirety, go to: https://mediaserver.uthsc.edu/uthscms/Play/0c900b4b88aa4d508b53469aa7e588721d