How UW Medicine responded to the pandemic
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At the end of 2019, Chinese health officials confirmed they were treating dozens of pneumonia cases with an unknown cause. It was a new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2.
UW Medicine researchers and clinicians prepared as cases began to spread across the globe. Then, on January 19, the first confirmed case of coronavirus in the United States occurred in Washington state. The Puget Sound region was ground zero. This montage, prepared by the UW Medicine media and video team, is a high level representation of how UW Medicine rose to the challenge through research and patient care.
On Feb. 1, UW Medicine jumped in to help with the home assessment team for the outbreak. The story was covered by several outlets, including one in Spain. The news explained how this strategy helps patients without tying up sections of the hospital.
“It’s clearly dangerous. It kills people. This is not a cold,” John Lynch, medical director of Harborview’s Infection Control, told KOMO News.
On Feb. 29, the first reported death in Washington state led Governor Jay Inslee to declare a statewide emergency. Just a few days later, everything changed.
On March 3, a test confirmed that a man in this 50s died of COVID-19 at Harborview Medical Center. The UW Medicine media relations team sent out a statement and fielded calls from an estimated 100 reporters from local, national and international media, including The New York Times, ABC News, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, CBS News, CNN, Nature Journal, MIT Tech Review, Fox News, EveryDay Health, and even AccuWeather. More than 240 outlets covered the news.
The next day, March 4, UW Medicine’s virology lab finally got the green light from federal officials to begin testing for the COVID-19 virus by using their own laboratory-developed test.
This ability to test was a game changer in the fight against SARS-CoV-2. Virologist Alex Greninger had started deveoping this test back in January. If not for UW Medicine Virology, samples would have had to continue to be sent to the CDC in Atlanta and take three to five days to get back. Now, due to the ability of the lab, results come back the same day.
“I really need to call out just the heroic work that our staff has done and they’re all upstairs working right now,” said Keith Jerome, UW Medicine’s head of virology.
Jerome and Greninger are heralded as heroes in more than 40 media outlets following a news conference. Reports appear in NPR, Scientific American, BBC World News, The New Yorker, The Seattle Times, NBC News, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, GQ, The Atlantic, PBS-Frontline and all local media. The work at UW Medicine was recognized by the White House as well, with Vice President Mike Pence saying on CNN, “I want to commend the University of Washington for the extraordinary work they’re doing expanding tests to the people impacted in Washington state.”
On March 6, UW Medicine set up one of the first drive-through testing sites in the country. Reporters from all over flocked to Seattle to cover this strategy. A photographer for National Geographic took a short video of nurses at the drive-through site doing yoga. This video appeared on many media outlets, even appearing on The Jimmy Fallon Show.
UW Medicine set up Harborview Hall as a recovery site for vulnerable patients who have nowhere else to go, and also opened walk-through and drive-through sites to address the need for testing in South Seattle.
Due to the shortage of personal protection equipment, Dr. Tim Dellit, chief medical officer of UW Medicine, urged the CDC to adopt the World Health Organization’s standards for use of that equipment to protect patient-care staff. Some of UW Medicine’s providers, taking their experience with COVID 19, flew to New York to help address the needs that city was facing. UW Medicine scientists were featured in national pieces discussing the importance of testing for the coronavirus.
On March 17, Mark Tonelli in pulmonary and critical care was interviewed by The Washington Post in a compelling video that explores how “At the center of the coronavirus outbreak, a hospital prepares for the worst.”
Meanwhile, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at UW Medicine developed a model predicting COVID-19 deaths for every country in the world. Their modeling was cited by the White House in its policy to combat the pandemic. Their projections were broadcasted almost daily.
Reporters continued to call the UW Medicine media relations team to find experts for every angle. Emergency room physicians and nurses are in high demand with the media. The New York Times profiles hospital chaplains. Reuters take photos of frontline workers representing a variety of roles – respiratory therapists, anesthesiologists and cleaning crew. CNN reporter Sara Sidner, during a tour of the COVID-19 ICU, commented, “You see the hard work that’s being done and people doing everything they need to take care of patients. It's awe inspiring.”
In March and April, the community showered UW Medicine with support. Donors included Duff McKagan, founding bassist for Guns N’ Roses, Isaiah Thomas, former Husky and NBA player, Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla, Lizzo, the flute-playing rapper singer-songwriter, Godiva, and several restaurants organized by community leader Ellen Kuwana and others.
“Communities come together in times of crisis. So I’m pleased and proud but not surprised,” said Paul Ramsey, CEO of UW Medicine, to TIME Magazine.
Meanwhile, UW School of Medicine researchers were continually in the spotlight. Alison Roxby in global health received national attention on how a study team prevented a COVID-19 outbreak in an assisted living community by testing all the staff and residents. On April 7, as a special guest on MSNBC with Rachel Maddow, she explained how testing saves lives.
Deborah Fuller in microbiology was featured on her team’s progress on creating a replicating RNA vaccine.
“Overall, vaccines really are the one medical intervention of all the other types being tested that has the greatest hope for eventually slapping down this pandemic,” Fuller told CNN.
Dr. Helen Chu was featured for her work with the Seattle Flu Study. That team began testing samples for COVID-19 in January. Chu also was a part of a multisite study of remdesivir, an experimental drug originallly developed to treat Ebola. Preliminary results showed that drug is effective in treating severe cases of the coronavirus.
David Veesler in biochemistry discovered that an antibody in the blood of a person who recovered from SARS 13 years ago can neutralize other coronaviruses, including the one that causes COVID-19. This major development, published May 18, was covered across the globe in outlets like the South China Morning Post, Agence France-Presse, and locally.
On the clinical side, in the thick of the crisis, Geneva Wood, a 90-year-old LifeCare patient nearing death from COVID-19, made a remarkable recovery at Harborview Medical Center. Her story, told March 19 by KOMO-TV and in People magazine, was shared 6.5 million times on social media.
When asked what she would tell the coronavirus if she could, Wood had one word: “Goodbye.”
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