Takeaways from the fall 2020 CTSI Distinguished Seminar Series

distinguished takeaways covid image.

Published January 6, 2021


The fall 2020 University at Buffalo Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI) Distinguished Seminar Series tackled the most impactful and devastating public health issue of the year — the COVID-19 pandemic. The three virtual seminars touched on both the impact of COVID and the much-discussed vaccines, with the following key takeaways.  

Virtual format led to major speakers and an interactive experience.
CTSI Director Timothy F. Murphy, MD, SUNY Distinguished Professor, noted that the virtual format made for a unique experience, including a wide range of questions posed via chat. “Each of our three Distinguished Seminar Series speakers for the fall are nationally recognized experts who gave exciting, timely talks focused on our overall themes of the coronavirus pandemic and health disparities,” Murphy said. “It is ironic that social distancing, which has separated us all from one another, has led to conducting our seminar series remotely — which actually reduces barriers to bringing in world-class speakers that are accessible to our entire campus and community.”

The format also allowed the series to reach a large, diverse audience.
“Moving our Distinguished Seminar Series from an in-person to a virtual format during this new era of social distancing was a welcomed change,” said CTSI Workforce Development Core Director Margarita L. Dubocovich, PhD, SUNY Distinguished Professor, Jacobs School. “Our internationally renowned speakers presented their work on COVID-19 and the impact on health disparities to a large and engaged virtual audience. The success of this series and our ability to reach a diverse audience was a silver lining in spite of the pandemic.” Series faculty leader Jessica Reynolds, PhD, Associate Director of the CTSI’s Workforce Development Core and Associate Professor, Department of Medicine, Jacobs School, believes the audience will grow even more diverse as the series continues: “As we look to the future of this Distinguished Seminar Series, we are excited to combine the virtual platform with in-person seminars to increase the diversity of our audience.”

From left, fall 2020 Distinguished Seminar Series speakers Deidra Crews, MD, ScM; Ann Regina Falsey, MD; and Gonzalo Bearman, MD, MPH.

From left, fall 2020 Distinguished Seminar Series speakers Deidra Crews, MD, ScM; Ann Regina Falsey, MD; and Gonzalo Bearman, MD, MPH.

There are links between perceived discrimination and kidney function.
The November 17 seminar by Deidra Crews, MD, ScM, Associate Professor of Medicine, Division of Nephrology, and Associate Director for Research Development, Johns Hopkins Center for Health Equity, at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, titled “The Pursuit of Structurally Competent Research to Achieve Health Equity” (watch here), focused on the links among health equity, kidney disease, and the pandemic. Crews took a deep look at how low trust in providers, high stress, and high daily discrimination are each associated with low routine medical care. As these different life stressors accumulate over time, changes to the body occur that lead to an increased risk of kidney disease. In addition, these elements have led to greater instances of COVID-19 illness and death.

The health impact of “redlining” is felt to this day.
Crews’ seminar included maps of Buffalo and Baltimore in the 1930s, offering visual evidence of “redlining,” the practice in which lenders limited loans in predominantly Black communities. The long-term impacts are still felt in both cities. Despite Crews’ slides being from nearly 100 years ago, she demonstrated that the effects of communities being partitioned off and geographically separated from different opportunities is tangible. “Even five miles can make a world of difference when it comes to health and uncertainty when it comes to health equity,” Crews said.

None of the standard steps involved in the creation of a new vaccine have been skipped in the development of COVID-19 vaccines.
According to Ann Regina Falsey, MD, Professor of Medicine, University of Rochester School of Medicine, in her December 1 seminar titled “The Road to a COVID Vaccine” (watch here), the average time it takes to develop a new vaccine is 10 years. However, the development of COVID-19 vaccines has been far quicker. This speed has been the subject of much news coverage, and led to some vaccine hesitancy. However, as Falsey explained, none of the usual development steps were skipped. Rather, researchers worked long hours, and FDA and the government employees “[worked] overtime to decrease the red tape and move through these phases more quickly.”

Patients with comorbidities should not be hesitant to take the vaccine.
While patients with comorbidities may have concerns when it comes to the COVID-19 vaccine, Falsey stated they should not feel any hesitancy when it comes to taking it. “As you weigh the risks and benefits, I think that the balance is for people with comorbidities to go ahead and take the vaccine if it becomes available to them,” she said.

Symptom-based COVID-19 monitoring approaches were ineffective.
The December 7 seminar from Gonzalo Bearman, MD, MPH, Professor and Chair, Division of Infectious Diseases and Hospital Epidemiologist/Medical Director of VCU Healthcare Infection Prevention Program, Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine, titled “COVID-19 Pandemic: Lessons Learned and Will We Be Better Prepared Next Time?” (watch here), analyzed 10 specific lessons learned from the pandemic. Bearman looked back at the early days of the pandemic’s spread and, in one lesson, explained how knowledge of transmission is dynamic. Specifically, he explored COVID transmission with an absence of symptoms, concluding that “symptom-based monitoring is absolutely insufficient for effective screening.” Many months after the pandemic struck, Bearman said, our transmission knowledge is still “changing day by day.”

Even in a public health emergency, high quality science is necessary.
Using the example of the use of a much-reported and later debunked hydroxychloroquine study, Bearman said the “rush to publication can be counterproductive.” This “poorly designed study,” as he put it, caused prescriptions of the drug to rise dramatically in March 2020. Since then, it was learned that this antimalarial drug is not an effective treatment for COVID-19. Yet the damage from its speed to publication and widespread media coverage was vast and long-lasting.

As the three seminars from Crews, Falsey, and Bearman demonstrate, information about the pandemic — and its impacts on worldwide health — continues to evolve. Watch the CTSI website for continuing coverage of COVID-19, as well as news about upcoming seminars.