Research News

2020 in review: How UB’s faculty, staff and students fought COVID-19

From left to right: UB students Joycelyn Moss, Philip Sales and Shaina Chechang hold PPE materials that they, along with a team of other students, created for local dentists.

From left: UB students Joycelyn Moss, Philip Sales and Shaina Chechang hold PPE materials that they, along with a team of other students, created for local dentists. Photo: Douglas Levere

UBNOW STAFF

Published December 21, 2020

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“Everyone was asking, ‘How can I help? What can I do?’ To a person, they all wanted to find a way to apply their skills to fighting this virus. ”
Timothy Murphy, SUNY Distinguished Professor of Medicine

Last March, Tim Murphy sat in a meeting with a handful of other UB scientists. All were coming to grips with the reality that the research they had built their careers on was, for now, coming abruptly to a halt. Despite that, the conversation that day had a single focus.

“Everyone was asking, ‘How can I help? What can I do?’ To a person, they all wanted to find a way to apply their skills to fighting this virus,” recalls Murphy, SUNY Distinguished Professor in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB.

For the rest of 2020, that attitude has continued to prevail among UB employees, whether they are on the front lines, caring for patients in local hospitals, adapting scientific research to study the virus, transitioning to working from home while juggling homeschooling and other responsibilities, or making up the essential employee workforce on campus, some of whom were profiled in UBNow’s Thankful Thursday feature spotlighting essential workers.

In a year of unrelenting challenges, members of the UB community have worked tirelessly to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

They cared for patients. They volunteered in hard-hit New York City. They brought clinical trials to Western New York. They conducted research on COVID-19 and its societal impacts. And they answered the persistent need for accurate information by making presentations, publishing articles and translating technical information into language accessible to the media and the general public.

Throughout the year, as the pandemic and its challenges have changed, so has the response of UB faculty, staff and students. It’s impossible to describe them all. In fact, as of this writing, members of the UB community are undertaking new initiatives that have not yet come to light.

Below is a sampling of some of the many ways the UB community continues to work every day to mitigate the effects of this unprecedented chapter in our lives. The media placements listed are just a few examples of the media coverage UB’s received during the pandemic.

Karin Provost, DO, PhD, is one of more than 500 University at Buffalo faculty physicians providing care to patients in UB’s affiliated teaching hospitals throughout Western New York.

Karin Provost is one of more than 500 UB faculty physicians providing care to patients in UB’s affiliated teaching hospitals throughout Western New York.

The pandemic’s early days

In early 2020, UB’s infectious disease experts and health care workers aided the region’s pandemic planning and response, helping hospitals prepare, and treating patients. The UB community also raced to help Western New York ramp up testing efforts, donating supplies and addressing bottlenecks. Students, staff and faculty launched innovative programs to provide personal protective equipment to essential workers, and many also volunteered, delivering meals to kids in Buffalo, providing care in hard-hit New York City, playing bagpipe music for neighbors, and making a Buffalo ‘coloring book’ for families staying at home.

Natalia Crenesse-Cozien (left), a medical student in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB, stops to pet her neighbor’s dog while across the street, recent Jacobs School graduate Aaron Sing Bola prepares to videotape the scene. All three are wearing masks.

Natalia Crenesse-Cozien (left), a medical student in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB, stops to pet her neighbor’s dog while across the street, recent Jacobs School graduate Aaron Sing Bola prepares to videotape the scene. All three are wearing masks. Photo: Meredith Forrest-Kulwicki

Championing public health messages

Throughout the pandemic, UB medical and public health experts have devoted countless hours to sharing messages that are now commonplace: Wear a mask. Practice social distancing. Stay home if you feel sick. Wash your hands. Raven Baxter, a scientist, science communicator and PhD candidate in the Graduate School of Education, created, “Wipe It Down,” a viral rap music video about preventing COVID-19 spread and recently another rap video on how the vaccines protect us from the virus.

A scientist, science communicator and PhD candidate in the UB Graduate School of Education created viral rap music videos that shared information about the novel coronavirus and how to prevent it.

WBFO began to feature Nancy Nielsen, senior associate dean for health policy in the Jacobs School, as a weekly guest to discuss the ever-changing pandemic. Bruce Troen, chief of the Division of Geriatrics and Palliative Medicine, spoke out about conditions in nursing homes and how the pandemic affected the most vulnerable residents.

Thomas Russo, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases in the Department of Medicine, became such a familiar face on local and national media that The Buffalo News dubbed him “Buffalo’s Dr. Fauci.” Kevin Gibbons, senior associate dean for clinical affairs and executive director of UBMD Physicians’ Group, developed videos to explain how people could prevent transmission of the virus. Many more faculty experts in infectious diseases, medicine and pediatrics stepped up to educate the public and share what they knew.   

Press briefing at the CTRC with Henry Lewis Taylor speaking at the podium.

Henry Louis Taylor Jr., associate director of UB's Community Health Equity Research Institute, addresses the press briefing on Oct. 14 at the Clinical and Translational Research Center on how a UB-community partnership is helping to blunt the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. President Tripathi is seated at right. Photo: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki

Addressing pandemic’s racial disparities

COVID-19 has disproportionately affected communities of color in the U.S. To address health disparities, UB faculty joined community leaders in a powerful partnership to provide services in Buffalo as cases climbed in Western New York. The effort brought together UB’s Community Health Equity Research Institute, the African American Health Equity Task Force and the Buffalo Center for Health Equity. In addition to these and other local initiatives, UB faculty, such as Henry Louis Taylor Jr., professor in the School of Architecture and Planning, also worked to raise awareness nationally of the pandemic’s disproportionate toll on vulnerable communities, and underlying causes of inequities.

Clinical trials for new treatments

Researchers throughout UB are collaborating on national trials, working with partners across town on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and across the country, to gather the clinical data that will help determine how best to treat patients with COVID-19.

Modeling the spread

Starting early in the pandemic, faculty, graduate students and fellows from throughout UB came together to develop models of how the pandemic was affecting local hospitals. Led by Peter Winkelstein, executive director of the Institute for Healthcare Informatics, the team is continually refining the models that have become an integral part of the local response. The data in the models are cited often by county officials, local hospitals and health care systems as a way of explaining and understanding the impact of local changes in infection patterns, community behavior, intensive care unit utilization and morbidity and mortality.

Pivoting research to novel coronavirus

UB researchers, many of whose own research was put on pause in the spring, quickly adapted by focusing their skills on the novel coronavirus. They studied numerous aspects of COVID-19, and UB faculty, staff and students in every discipline have contributed solutions to issues triggered by the pandemic.

Understanding pandemic’s effects

In addition to championing public health messages and raising awareness of health disparities, faculty across UB fielded questions from the media and public on COVID-19’s impacts on society. Locally, UB experts spoke to The Buffalo News about toilet paper and kayak shortages, stockpiling, alcohol consumption, raises for grocery workers, remote work, the impact of COVID-19 restrictions on civil liberties, and more. Nationally, UB researchers shared insights on loneliness, comfort food, remote education, the stock market, Zoom-bombing, online chess cheating, and many other topics. These communication efforts helped to shape public understanding of the pandemic.