UTHSC Partners with Le Bonheur and St. Jude to Host Second Coronavirus Online Symposium

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The University of Tennessee Health Science Center Tuesday hosted its second online coronavirus symposium to an audience of more than 580. UTHSC’s first Coronavirus Online Symposium for providers and the public was held April 6, and highlighted the characteristics of the virus; its patterns of spread; and efforts led by the university and its partners to contain it.

“We are trying in the College of Medicine and at UTHSC as a whole to make sure our community is informed with the latest updates surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Scott Strome, MD, FACS, Robert Kaplan Executive Dean of the UTHSC College of Medicine and vice chancellor for Health Affairs at UTHSC.

The symposium featured a panel of experts from the UTHSC College of Medicine, Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital, and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and was moderated by Andrew Griffith, MD, PhD, senior associate dean of Research for the College of Medicine at UTHSC.

Jon McCullers, MD, professor and chair of the Department of Pediatrics, senior executive associate dean of Clinical Affairs at UTHSC, and Pediatrician-in-Chief at Le Bonheur, presented a mid-summer update on COVID-19.

He said the UTHSC Tiger Lane testing site is able to accommodate about 1,800 people a week and a number of federally qualified health clinics and safety net providers, including Church Health, Christ Community Health Services, and Cherokee Health Systems, can test about 2,900 per week. Many retail pharmacies, as well as hospitals, are also providing testing. “All in all, that’s close to 17,000 tests per week, which was our target as we unveiled the Memphis roadmap and went into the Back-to-Business framework. I’m happy to report that we are now at about 95 percent capacity.”

Dr. McCullers highlighted the need for contact tracers. Based on published estimates, he recommended that Memphis needs between 300 and 2,200 contact tracers. Currently, the city has about 150.

Jason Yaun, MD, associate professor of the Department of Pediatrics at UTHSC, division chief of Outpatient Pediatrics at Le Bonheur, and medical director of the Family Resilience Initiative at Le Bonheur, presented on COVID-19 and its impact on children and schools.

He shared statistics on children and how COVID-19 is affecting children, including the increased risk from stress and trauma, the decrease in childhood immunizations, and overall threat to social well-being.

Dr. Yaun highlighted the efforts of Le Bonheur and UTHSC in creating a Back to School Task Force, which partners with schools in the area to provide practical advice on implementing guidelines that focus on infection control, medical policies, and procedures. “We know schools provide more than just academic instruction for children,” he said. “From their social and emotional skills, nutrition, certain types of therapies including mental health therapies, physical activities, addressing those racial and social inequities, and just their overall development.”

Amik Sodhi, MD, MPH, associate professor and interim chief of the Division of Pulmonary, Critical Care, and Sleep Medicine in the Department of Medicine and chief medical officer for the region’s alternate-care hospital for COVID-19, and Richard Walker, MD, associate professor and interim chief of the Department of Emergency Medicine and chief executive officer for the alternate-care hospital, talked about hospital lessons learned and current readiness for COVID-19.

Dr. Sodhi said emergency medicine departments established national and global partnerships early in the pandemic to get real-time data on things that did and didn’t work when treating patients. “We cannot forget the levels of anxiety and stress on the health care workers, that has been tremendous during this pandemic,” Dr. Sodhi said.

The 401-bed hospital, which essentially “doubles the downtown medical capacity,” was built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the former Commercial Appeal building on Union Avenue. It will be used to relieve hospital overflow in the event of a surge in COVID-19 cases.

Dr. Walker pointed out hospitals may face a challenge this winter differentiating COVID-19 from other viral illnesses, both influenza and routine winter viruses. “From a city and regional standpoint, once the alternate-care site is activated, the most important thing at that point will be for people to self-isolate, socially distance, and to do all the things that have been recommended to attempt to affect that spike.”

Paul Thomas, PhD, professor in the UTHSC Department of Microbiology, Immunology, and Biochemistry, and faculty member at St. Jude presented on the development of immunity in COVID-19. He said antibody responses appear to be able to provide some protection, but more correlative studies are needed. “These are going to be the ultimate eliminators of the virus in an infected person, and what we are trying to elicit with a vaccine,” Dr. Thomas said. St. Jude is conducting a study on antibodies with employees who’ve contracted the virus and recovered.

Terri Finkel, MD, PhD, professor and associate chair of the UTHSC Department of Pediatrics and vice chair of Clinical Affairs at Le Bonheur, presented on the ongoing clinical trials for COVID-19.

The university is conducting two studies on COVID-19 using samples from a biorepository. Dr. Finkel summarized the differences between passive versus active immunity. Antibodies result in passive immunity and can be used for prevention and treatment. Immunity is immediate and may last only a few months. Vaccines result in active immunity, which is for prevention, and although immunity is delayed, it is usually long lasting.

There are currently five candidates that are part of the Operation Warp Speed Vaccine Program in the United States, she said. “It’s been six months since the virus was identified, three months since the virus was sequenced. Generally this process takes three to nine years. And here we are with vaccines that have shown immune responses and limited toxicity in a very fast period of time and done safely,” Dr. Finkel said.

“Ultimately we need a vaccine to return to normal,” Dr. McCullers said. “Until then, we are in a chronic management phase.”

A recording of the symposium is available on the event website.