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A look back at 2020: the historic year of science and resilience

December 18, 2020

By Anne Christiansen-Bullers

Female student sitting at table next to covid sign stating one person per table
Nicolle Schneider, a School of Health Professions student in the nurse anesthesia program, studies at a table on the HEB bridge in July 2020. In an attempt to protect students from the COVID-19 pandemic, some tables were designated for only one person. Photos on this page by Selena Jabara, KU Medical Center Photo Services

March 2, 2020. Hallways were buzzing with activity at the University of Kansas Medical Center. Procrastinating students were turning in their applications for graduation so they could walk across the commencement stage. Medical students were finalizing their residency applications for summer. Students, faculty and staff shared plans for the upcoming spring break.

And then...history happened.

The mystery virus that had closed China made its way to the United States, and "business as usual" halted. By the end of 2020, the year would forever be synonymous with COVID-19, and KU Medical Center had adopted a new normal that stressed resilience and roll-up-your-sleeves science to combat the pandemic.

"I don't think anyone could have predicted the challenges of 2020, but we addressed them and kept true to our mission of serving students," said Robert D. Simari, M.D., executive vice chancellor for KU Medical Center. "It hasn't been an easy year, but the people at KU Medical Center have made it a productive year despite obstacles."

New normal

On March 17, Simari emailed the university community.

"Just like everywhere else in our nation and the world, things are changing quickly at KU Medical Center. Our leadership teams have continued to evaluate circumstances related to the coronavirus and COVID-19, and we have determined that more stringent actions are necessary for our campus community," he wrote. "KU Medical Center is still considered open; our employees are just working from other locations."

Despite little notice of the switch, faculty and staff transitioned to remote worksites as quickly as they could. Chari J. Young, associate vice chancellor and chief human resources officer, said she thought the transition went "very well, all things considered."

"We literally shifted most of our workforce to working from home overnight," Young said. "Our faculty and staff rose to the challenge and have figured out all kinds of creative ways to stay connected and keep moving our research, education and service missions forward this year."

In research

Two students working in a laboratory, distanced apart

Edziu Franczak (left) and lab manager Julie Allen (right) return to the John Thyfault Lab on the Kansas City, Kansas, campus during phase 1 of reopening labs in May 2020.

Just four days after Simari's March 17 email, the University of Kansas Office of the Chancellor suspended "all non-essential research activities on all KU Medical Center campuses," the email read. The notice, sent on a Saturday, alerted researchers that their labs should close that Monday, March 23.

Allowances were made for ongoing research that would be rendered useless in a full closure, and for research related to COVID-19. But those numbers were small, and most researchers locked up their laboratories. Before the last safety scan, many of them donated their personal protective equipment (PPE) to the University of Kansas Health System. The gloves, masks and gowns were in short supply in the wake of worldwide shortages.

"All the credit should go to those scientists who made the tough choice to pause their research in the name of public health and to donate those critical items that would be sitting idle. We are all in this together," said Michelle Winter, core operations manager of Disease Model and Assessment Services at KU Medical Center.

Researchers also assisted patient care by fabricating face shields, creating research studies to test cancer patients for COVID-19 and providing leadership on a national commission tasked with nursing-home safety.

During the week of May 18, 60 research labs reopened, but mask-wearing, staggered shifts and social distancing guidelines were instituted. This new normal meant more people on campus, but not necessarily at the same time.

In COVID-19 research

Even though most other research was shelved for two months, research on COVID-19 continued at KU Medical Center. From clinical trials of highly touted drugs to translational science grants to a potential vaccine, KU Medical Center researchers were involved in at least 17 projects related COVID-19 generating an estimated $18.6 million.

"COVID-19, despite its terrible impact on our society, has provided opportunities for our researchers to participate in multiple clinical trials and add basic science knowledge. Multiple new grants were funded in the basic science focusing on COVID-19," said Matthias Salathe, M.D., vice chancellor for research.

He pointed to multiple clinical trials, including multi-center trials where partnerships with other research institutions led to stronger results and a spirit of collaboration.

Mario Castro, M.D., MPH, vice chair for clinical and translational research in internal medicine at KU Medical Center, either leads or participates in four different COVID-19 research projects. "I can tell you personally in talking to participants in our studies from all walks of life, that they have an earnest interest in helping us address solutions to this pandemic," he said. "They are appreciative that KU Medical Center has taken a lead role in helping us address this pandemic with the best science possible."

The University of Kansas Cancer Center participated in several registries that logged cancer patients who contracted COVID-19, and some researchers shifted from studying cancer to studying COVID-19. Gregory Gan, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of radiation oncology, and Deepika Polineni, M.D., MPH, associate professor of medicine, pivoted to study the investigational drug ATI-450 in treating respiratory infection brought on by COVID-19.

Roy Jensen, M.D., director of The University of Kansas Cancer Center, said his organization has been very proactive in anticipating issues that have arisen as a result of COVID. "Despite all the challenges, we are likely to wind up with our second-best year overall for total accruals to interventional trials. This is an incredible accomplishment as we shut down many of our trials until we could convince ourselves that we could preserve a safe environment for our patients and continue to conduct clinical research."

In education

Back of one medical student, another facing forward at computer

School of Medicine students Emily Worley and Katie Phalen share a table yet still observe social distancing while studying on the HEB bridge in August 2020.

Student learning continued with little interruption in 2020. To preserve PPE and to protect students from the threat of contracting COVID-19, most clinical experiences were temporarily suspended. Faculty in the schools of Health Professions, Medicine and Nursing found creative ways to fill this void until clinicals were reinstated in the fall of 2020.

Sally Maliski, Ph.D., RN, FAAN, dean of the KU School of Nursing, said small-group discussions that would have taken place in the classroom were instead held in online chat rooms. Instead of visiting the on-campus simulation lab, students practiced skills using a simulation program. "We were very adept at finding these simulations back in March when classes moved entirely online, and we are actually doing more of those online now than in person. There are some excellent software programs available that students can work through, interact with and then get immediate feedback," she said.

When medical students were nudged out of operating rooms to observe surgeries, the department of neurosurgery began live streaming surgeries via a secure, HIPAA-compliant video platform. Paul Camarata, M.D., chair of neurosurgery at KU Medical Center, said, "I actually felt like the teaching experience was more personal than if the student were physically in the room standing perhaps behind me. Now they are able to see what I'm seeing as if they were directly suspended above the surgical field or looking into the operating microscope."

Select students in the School of Medicine and in the department of respiratory therapy in the School of Health Professions graduated early to assist in patient care during the initial weeks of the pandemic. Early graduate Susanna Hobbs said, "I thought, why not? Let's go ahead and get this done. If Kansas ends up getting a big spike [in COVID-19 cases], I would rather be out helping than sitting at home."

Traditional ceremonies such as Match Day, the White Coat Ceremony, the Nightingale Ceremony and the department of physical therapy's pinning ceremony were held completely or partly online so loved ones could still mark these important moments with students.

Abiodun Akinwuntan, Ph.D., MPH, MBA, dean of the KU School of Health Professions, told students embarking upon their doctorate in physical therapy, "Keep doing your best as you continue your journey. None of us can predict what will happen tomorrow, but your safety and the quality of education are two things that remain very important to us."

In service

Map of Kansas counties with NIH grant counties highlighted

To help with COVID-19 testing in 10 counties with underserved populations (highlighted above), KU Medical Center received a grant from the National Institutes of Health's RADx initiative. 

KU Medical Center also sought ways to lessen the negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Kansas City area. A handful of faculty and alumni accepted the daunting task as public health officers for Kansas counties.

Two KU Medical Center doctors hosted a daily media briefing presented by the University of Kansas Health System, which answered not only reporter questions but community concerns as well. Guests on the show were often from KU Medical Center, ready to share the latest news on how they were contributing to the understanding or treatment of the novel coronavirus.

The JUNTOS Center for Advancing Latino Health at KU Medical Center stepped up to share COVID-19 information with community members who are primarily Spanish-speaking. Mariana Ramirez, LMSW, director of JUNTOS, said in April 2020, "Several people who have tested positive with COVID-19 have reached out with questions about how to prevent the spread at home and when to stop isolation. They don't know what to do or who to ask about it." So, JUNTOS filled that information void.

Technology proved to be essential for community outreach efforts. The University of Kansas Center for Telemedicine and Telehealth (KUCTT) hosted two webinars that drew more than 400 Kansas providers interested in how to develop and launch a telehealth plan based on its nearly 30 years of experience. The JaySTART clinic, which offers physical, occupational and speech therapy to community members who couldn't otherwise afford it, quickly transitioned from a face-to-face clinic to telehealth visits, and clinical trial participants at the University of Kansas Alzheimer's Disease Center also transitioned to telehealth.

To rapidly implement COVID-19 testing strategies in 10 Kansas counties that were disproportionately affected by the pandemic, KU Medical Center received a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The funds allowed for testing in underserved rural and minority communities as part of the NIH's RADx initiative.

From her vantage point in Human Resources, Young said 2020 gave KU Medical Center a chance to shine.

"No matter the challenge or issue that has arisen, our campus has come back just as strong as ever. What other enterprise would turn the pandemic into an opportunity to bring on new grants and employees, when so many areas of the economy have been hit so hard?" she said. "I am impressed by the determination of our faculty and staff to keep persevering forward on all of our missions."

Last modified: Jan 12, 2021
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