UF Health leads the way in setting COVID-19 testing sites, protocols around the state
It’s the key to a door. And behind that door is the University of Florida campus.
The key is “Screen, Test & Protect,” words about to become an important part of the Gator vocabulary during a novel coronavirus outbreak unrivaled in modern times.
In the opening weeks of the novel coronavirus pandemic, UF Health led testing efforts in the communities it serves, providing thousands of coronavirus tests that help scientists better understand how the virus spreads, especially among vulnerable populations.
Now comes UF Health’s unique test-and-trace initiative for the community at the heart of The Gator Nation: the UF campus itself.
The mission of UF Health Screen, Test & Protect is to create a unified, coordinated evidence-based infrastructure to promote a safer return to work and school for UF faculty, staff and students in the face of an unprecedented pandemic.
The effort is a data-driven, time-tested method based on public health principles to control infectious disease. Scientists said it will allow students, faculty and staff to gradually and confidently return to campus as safely as possible while minimizing the risk of new infection.
It works like this: Expansive testing will be conducted as people return in stages to UF. Anyone who is infected is isolated. Then, they’re interviewed by epidemiologists and others to trace their recent contacts. Those contacts are subsequently tested, and the process begins anew, a daisy chain of associations and connections.
UF Health leaders said the university isn’t helpless in the face of the novel coronavirus. It can be controlled. Scientists can fight back.
“It is important to recognize that there isn’t a fire-breathing dragon in our front yard ready to devour us,” said Michael Lauzardo, M.D., deputy director of the UF Emerging Pathogens Institute and a specialist in infectious disease. “Data are clearly showing, from a public health perspective, we need not stay in total lockdown. Screen, Test & Protect will put the brakes on the inevitable spread of the virus.”
UF Health Screen, Test & Protect “is really the foundational element to allow us to bring back our students, our faculty and our staff to a safe environment,” said David R. Nelson, M.D., senior vice president for health affairs, UF & president, UF Health.
Screen, Test & Protect can’t prevent infection, officials say. That’s impossible. But with social distancing and other precautions, it minimizes risk. It’s just one of the ways that UF Health has been leading the way in coronavirus testing at various locations around the state during this public health emergency. The following are other instances.
Children pose unique challenges
UF Health has opened a study that might eventually help public health officials make evidence-based decisions on when schools can reopen by looking at coronavirus transmission in school-age children.
Led by faculty in the UF College of Public Health and Health Professions, the UF College of Medicine and the UF College of Education, the project aims to enroll 500 K-12 students from Gainesville’s P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School.
“Improved understanding of the epidemiology of COVID-19 in school-age children is essential in our gaining a full understanding of disease transmission through the general population,” said Sarah McKune, Ph.D., M.P.H., a research assistant professor in the department of environmental and global health.
The study is believed to be one of the first of its kind in the country.
Because COVID-19 testing in the U.S. has mostly been targeted at older people who have more severe illness or are in a high-risk group, little is known about how the virus is circulating among people who experience mild or no symptoms, including children.
In this study, using a non-FDA-approved test developed by UF, investigators are collecting throat swabs and blood samples mostly from asymptomatic children. Swab samples will be analyzed for the coronavirus, while blood will be used to determine if someone has previously been exposed to it.
Drive-thru testing at The Villages®
During the early weeks of the epidemic, UF Health opened a vigorous research and clinical testing program to understand how COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, moves through at-risk populations.
In testing from Gainesville to Jacksonville to The Villages®, findings will arm researchers as they seek to better understand necessary steps to track and contain the epidemic, while also providing data to help guide decisions on lifting restrictions.
Research testing was launched at The Villages® in late March, and more than 4,000 tests have been administered. UF Health personnel, including medical and nursing students who volunteered to help out, worked with The Villages Health and state health and emergency management officials.
Testing demonstrated that social distancing appears to be having a positive effect in this community of older adults as infection rates have remained relatively low, UF Health infectious disease specialists say.
“The big takeaway is that social distancing and isolation has been working at The Villages®,” said Lauzardo.
Rapid testing at UF Health Central Florida
UF Health Central Florida’s clinical laboratory team, working with UF Health Shands in Gainesville, developed a rapid, in-house coronavirus test for patients under investigation, or PUIs, at UF Health Leesburg Hospital and UF Health The Villages® Hospital.
“Prior to the development of local rapid testing, we had to send samples to either the state health laboratories or Quest,” said Marty Monin, administrative director of laboratory services for UF Health Leesburg Hospital.
“We often had to wait up to 10 days to receive lab results, which meant that our PUIs had to remain hospitalized for several days until they could be cleared,’’ Monin said. “As a result of our collaboration with UF Health Shands and the tremendous efforts of the entire lab team, we are now able to provide results to these patients in less than two hours.”
These advancements have resulted in an 80% reduction in the number of holds for PUIs and a significant reduction in the number of disposable masks, gowns and lab coats used each day in facilities. Moreover, the rapid test, developed by Cepheid, an industry leader in automated molecular diagnostics, is the most sensitive and reliable system available on the market for COVID-19 testing.
Testing those most at risk in Jacksonville
Clinical and research testing also took place in Jacksonville, focused on residents of the region who are at risk of being disproportionately affected by the health emergency.
Initial efforts involved a team of up to 50 volunteer UF Health medical professionals who were expected to evaluate up to 2,000 people in the first two weeks. To be eligible, residents needed to be over the age of 65 or have a UF Health Jacksonville primary care physician.
This effort also involved a research aspect, allowing asymptomatic people to receive testing using a UF Health-developed assay not yet approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Walk-up or drive-thru and community-based screening took place at several locations, bringing testing close to where people live. Testing was focused on areas at risk of being disproportionately affected by the pandemic because of poor access to health care and socioeconomic inequities.
“The heart and soul of an academic health center like UF Health is a commitment to educate and serve under-resourced members of the community, especially in times of crisis,” said Leon L. Haley, Jr., M.D., CEO of UF Health Jacksonville, vice president for health affairs and dean of the UF College of Medicine – Jacksonville.
First responders need care, too
In early April, UF Health made coronavirus testing available to asymptomatic first responders and emergency room personnel as part of a research protocol.
“As the world around them self-isolates to avoid exposure to the coronavirus, these dedicated public servants and medical employees are coming to work each day and doing their best to protect their community,” said Joseph A. Tyndall, M.D., M.P.H., the interim dean of the UF College of Medicine. “It’s important for us to do everything we can to support them in this time of crisis.”
UF Health leaders say they recognize the need to assist personnel who find themselves especially at risk in the ongoing pandemic.
“Our emergency room staffers and all those caring for COVID-19 patients at UF Health are bravely stepping up in this uncertain environment, recognizing the danger of the coronavirus, yet ready to stand at their post to ensure the job of caring for those in need is done with their typical excellence,” said UF Health Shands CEO Ed Jimenez. “Employees in every department of UF Health Shands are ably filling vital roles every hour of the day, and they are the beating heart of our health system.”
In late May, UF Health expanded the testing to include all 2,500 city of Gainesville employees, making voluntary testing available to any worker concerned they might have been exposed to the virus.
Gainesville City Manager Lee R. Feldman thanked UF Health for its work, referring to the city’s employees as “community builders.”
“The city of Gainesville is appreciative of UF Health’s efforts to include all of our community builders in its coronavirus testing program,” he said. “UF Health has been a tremendous partner and resource during the pandemic, and this program will enable the city to continue to provide all of our essential services to our neighbors.”
Helping the homeless
A volunteer team of students, faculty and staff from the UF College of Medicine and the UF College of Nursing screened and tested residents residing at GRACE Marketplace, a 25-acre campus in Gainesville providing shelter, services and permanent housing solutions for the homeless.
Jon DeCarmine, executive director of GRACE Marketplace, said the testing by UF Health creates a lasting impact for this medically vulnerable population, who often cannot maintain the isolation recommended for social distancing.
“By default, people without a home of their own tend to live in congregate settings that can make it difficult to maintain appropriate distance from other people,” he said.