During the last few days of February, it was very strange to turn on the TV in the morning and see our medical center on the national news and for this coverage to continue over several days. In fact, it was an almost an out of body experience to see my familiar and comfortable place of employment in such an unfamiliar and uncomfortable way. Even stranger – and scarier – was that the reason for this national attention was (and continues to be) COVID-19, a virus deemed by the WHO as having “pandemic potential”.
Of course, for us, this is really all in a day's work – as an academic medical center, we are not just any hospital, we don't get average patients, and pandemics and other disasters is what we are here for. UC Davis played a key role in unlocking the secrets of HIV during the AIDS epidemic; we set up a special unit with its own laboratory during the deadly Ebola outbreak when UC Davis Medical Center was designated as a site to test and treat potentially infected patients; and we've prepared and cared for patients with Zika, and SARS and more.
As one of our faculty said, this is not our first rodeo.
Nonetheless, it is the first rodeo for many members of our health system, including in our department. Even for us old timers, each time is a little different — there are always new and different challenges and new lessons to be learned.
Here are some of my reflections from our first weeks that inspire me as we travel this COVID-19 journey together:
- Be prepared and be nimble: Our laboratory team had been anticipating the need for local laboratory testing for several weeks before the need actually hit. Based on reports from China and elsewhere re: high rates of infectivity, it certainly seemed possible that central testing offered by state departments of public health would not be able to meet demand. On February 29 when the FDA provided emergency use authorization for academic health centers to develop and deploy their own lab-developed test, our multi-disciplinary team quickly stepped into action. Not only did we have our own test development plan ready, we had already been speaking with industry partners about clinical validation of tests that they had in development since these will eventually provide high-volume automated solutions on our existing equipment for long-term testing. The laboratory has been prepared on all fronts.
- Be grateful for colleagues and friends: Our lab staff, faculty, and all members of our affiliated teams are the very best — highly skilled, tremendously dedicated – and clearly believe in our special mission as an academic health center because they have chosen to work here at a UC medical center. I so appreciate that our entire departmental team and many other units have stepped up to support our efforts to develop a new test for COVID-19, including fast-tracking approvals for purchasing equipment and reagents, as well as review and approval of protocols by our IRB. We are so fortunate to have the eager participation of many other School of Medicine departments, as well as our colleagues at the Vet School and Primate Center – these collaborations are what makes UC Davis efforts unique and valuable. It has also been amazing to have alumni reach out from across the country and the world to support our efforts. We have received e-mails and phone calls from alums who are leaders in industry and experts in the science, computing, and global health, many of whom are working on COVID-19 in other countries or regions. The expertise we have to draw on is incredible – and again, uniquely UC Davis.
- Respect nature: Infectious bugs are everywhere, and can make you sick – it is not just COVID-19 that's a concern. Fortunately, no special safety precautions are needed in the lab or in real life for this particular infection – COVID-19 is not like Ebola or HIV. But this is a good time to remember to use universal precautions in the lab and wash hands regularly, wherever you are – this keeps us all healthier and less likely to catch whatever is flying around out there.
- The best patient care requires the right lab testing: As I've shared with others, if there can ever be a “silver lining” to a pandemic, I think that it resides in the fact that this public health emergency has drawn attention to the incredible importance of the clinical laboratory, the tests that we provide, and the unique expertise within clinical labs in academic health centers. Labs in university hospitals like ours have been highlighted as a beacon of hope and source of unparalleled expertise since we are among the few that can develop and deploy a lab-developed test to fill the testing gap and provide important information that guides care. Our test results are a linchpin to guiding care, minimizing anxiety, avoiding panic, and maintaining calm. It has been gratifying to see the recognition and appreciation of what we do, locally and nationally – and especially gratifying that everyone here at UCD has such high trust and regard for what we are doing now – and always — to provide the best patient care.
As ground zero for community-acquired infection, we at UCD Health have a huge opportunity and an ethical obligation to make a difference in our community and the world. I hope that this challenging time inspires everyone's participation and allows us to live up to the special obligation that we have as healthcare professionals and as members of the UC system. This is not our first rodeo – nor will it be our last.