UB Leading Way in WNY’s Fight Against COVID-19

Published March 29, 2021

story based on news release by ellen goldbaum

The University at Buffalo is playing a key role in helping Western New York defeat the COVID-19 pandemic.

“So many at UB have dedicated themselves to fighting this virus, and I am heartened to know that their contributions will have played a vital role in helping WNY return to normalcy. ”
Michael E. Cain, MD
Vice president for health sciences and dean of the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences

From the first cases of coronavirus in the community in early 2020, and continuing now as the vaccine rollout begins, UB has leveraged its resources and expertise — including its research enterprise and front-line physician-faculty members and students — in an effort to bolster the community’s response.

“Throughout this pandemic, the University at Buffalo has generously shared its expertise and resources to help Western New York respond to, and ultimately conquer, this deadly virus,” says Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, who serves on the leadership team of the WNY Vaccination Hub with Michael E. Cain, MD, UB’s vice president for health sciences and dean of the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

“UB has been a true community partner in this fight. It is during times of crisis such as this that we are fortunate as Western New Yorkers to have a public research university right in our own backyard,” she adds.

Asking the Question: ‘How Can I Be of Most Help?’

As “normal life” lurched to a halt in the pandemic’s early days, and classrooms and labs shut down, UB faculty and staff pivoted to the rapidly unfolding crisis.

“Throughout the pandemic, our entire university community has doubled down on our mission-driven priority to contribute to the welfare and well-being of the communities we serve,” says UB President Satish K. Tripathi, PhD. “This is how a great public research university responds in times of crisis: Not by wringing our hands, but by rolling up our sleeves.”

Timothy F. Murphy, MD, SUNY Distinguished Professor of medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases and senior associate dean for clinical and translational research in the Jacobs School, recalls sitting in a meeting with UB scientists.

“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,” he remembers.

Because there was hardly any capacity to do testing at the start of the pandemic, John E. Tomaszewski, MD, SUNY Distinguished Professor and the Peter A. Nickerson, PhD, chair of pathology and anatomical sciences, and Anthony A. Campagnari, PhD, SUNY Distinguished Professor of microbiology and immunology and senior associate dean for research and graduate education, together provided expertise as well as the essential reagents that allowed Kaleida Health to increase its COVID testing last spring.

Campagnari says UB has provided 104,232 tubes of viral transport media (VTM) — critical for any tests involving viral detection — thus far to Kaleida Health.

He notes his lab group — Nicole Luke-Marshall, PhD; Shauna Sauberan, Lisa Hansen and Gregory Stowell — has performed the work of producing the VTM tubes while continuing their regular experimental responsibilities in support of current research projects.

Multiple Faculty Members Share Their Expertise

Sharing expertise was, and continues to be, absolutely essential, especially now as game-changing vaccines continue to roll out and the public needs reassurances about their safety.

Local and national media outlets turned to UB faculty experts to provide listeners and viewers with science-based insight and analysis.

Infectious diseases expert Thomas A. Russo, MD, professor of medicine and chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases, became such a familiar face in the media nationwide that The Buffalo News dubbed him “Buffalo’s Dr. Fauci.”

Nancy H. Nielsen, MD, PhD, clinical professor of medicine and senior associate dean for health policy, is a weekly guest on WBFO-FM, Buffalo’s National Public Radio affiliate.

John A. Sellick Jr., DO, professor of medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases, has discussed with reporters topics ranging from safe dental visits to vaccines.

Bruce R. Troen, MD, professor of medicine and chief of the Division of Geriatrics and Palliative Medicine, has explained conditions in nursing homes and how the pandemic has affected the most vulnerable residents.

Helping to Understand the Spread

Policymakers have also leaned heavily on UB professors.

Since March 2020, the Erie County Department of Health and local hospital systems have relied on UB’s Institute for Healthcare Informatics (IHI) in an effort to better understand how the pandemic could unfold in Western New York.

Over the past year, IHI Executive Director Peter Winkelstein, MD, and Peter L. Elkin, MD, professor and chair of biomedical informatics, have spearheaded an effort with area partners and colleagues from the Jacobs School and the School of Public Health and Health Professions to develop and adapt existing epidemiological models to the local COVID-19 epidemic.

Their efforts have been vital in the county’s response, says Erie County Health Commissioner Gale R. Burstein, MD, who is also a clinical professor of pediatrics in the Jacobs School.

“From soon after COVID-19 cases were detected in Erie County, Dr. Winkelstein’s research group at the University at Buffalo provided valuable insight on how the COVID-19 pandemic could affect local hospitalizations,” Burstein says. “Their modeling informed our department’s preparations and provided context for our public health response.”

That wide-ranging collaboration continues to the present, with the most recent models capable of reflecting the impact of vaccinations and the potential for new variants of the virus in Western New York.

Serving the Community on the Front Lines

UB faculty, students and staff aren’t just working behind the scenes, though. More than 1,000 UB physicians, nurses, public health professions and other health care providers are serving on the front lines, treating and caring for COVID-19 patients in local hospitals. And many are helping administer COVID-19 vaccines to eligible patients.

More than 500 faculty physicians and more than 700 medical residents from the Jacobs School have cared for patients in UB’s affiliated teaching hospitals throughout Western New York.

There’s also a long list of volunteer efforts, all indicative of UB’s mission to serve the greater public good.

Students in the School of Nursing volunteered at the VA Western New York Health Care System to care for COVID-19 patients in both inpatient and outpatient settings. Medical students delivered meals to Buffalo Public Schools families. Researchers turned labs into face mask mini-factories and donated them to local health care providers and charities.

Focusing on Innovation of New Treatments

UB physicians have launched groundbreaking clinical trials to investigate new COVID-19 treatments, and Manoj J. Mammen, MD, associate professor of medicine in the Division of Pulmonary, Critical Care and Sleep Medicine, was part of the international team that published the first guidelines for treating severe cases of COVID-19.

Mammen is also local principal investigator on the National Institutes of Health-funded convalescent plasma trial at Buffalo General Medical Center.

Data collected from research led by Sanjay Sethi, MD, professor of medicine and chief of the Division of Pulmonary, Critical Care and Sleep Medicine, on remdesivir in Western New York patients helped lead to the FDA’s emergency approval last fall of the drug for treating patients with COVID-19.  

UB’s pediatric specialists are contributing to the understanding of how best to treat and track cases of a rare but lethal condition that affects some children who have COVID-19.

Meanwhile, scientists in UB’s basic science labs have pivoted their research to focus on studying how the novel coronavirus works and how to treat it.

UB biomedical engineers are working on ways to make more powerful vaccines by turning the coronavirus protein into a nanoparticle. Another UB team is using computational approaches to suggest already-approved drugs that may in fact be useful for inhibiting the SARS-CoV-2 virus, while others have developed a biosensor platform to accelerate the discovery of new antiviral drugs that might work against it.

Working to Ensure Health Equity

As was the case nationally, Buffalo’s underrepresented communities were hardest hit. UB faculty have worked alongside partner organizations in these neighborhoods to address health disparities, helping Western New York become one of the few regions nationally that has reduced COVID-19 deaths among African Americans.

School of Nursing researchers are collaborating with the African American Health Disparities Task Force and other local partners to help adults living in low-income, racial- and ethnic-minority neighborhoods reduce pandemic related stress.

And researchers with UB’s Community Health Equity Research Institute have brought a multidisciplinary approach to addressing the social harms to underrepresented populations that resulted from the pandemic. The institute is also working with its community partners to provide access to the vaccines for underrepresented groups.

“UB’s Community Health Equity Research Institute is going to go down in history as the quintessential approach in how you tackle a problem on the ground from the ivory tower,” says Kinzer Pointer, pastor of the Liberty Missionary Baptist church and co-convener of the African American Health Equity Task force. “This university and its leadership is visionary. The university said you know, we can do this, and then did it.”

Urban planning experts in UB’s School of Architecture and Planning and the UB Community for Global Health Equity sought to strengthen the local food system in response to COVID-19 by creating a food map showing where in the region underrepresented communities could access food.

Coordinating Access to Vaccines

As supplies of COVID-19 vaccines increase, UB is playing an important role in a New York State initiative whose aim is to safely, efficiently and equitably vaccinate Western New Yorkers against the COVID-19 virus.

UB leaders in health care, management and logistics are collaborating via the Vaccinate Western New York hub, one of 10 vaccination hubs across the state established by the state Health Department for the purpose of distributing the vaccines.

Cain serves on the hub’s leadership team, which is headed by Hochul.

UB is also represented on the hub by Natalie Simpson, an information management expert in the School of Management who is creating a system to ensure the vaccines are distributed equitably across Western New York, and by the Community Health Equity Research Institute’s Murphy, who is leading the WNY hub’s Health Equity Task Force. Nielsen is leading the planning effort, meeting regularly with county health department leaders throughout the region, to understand their needs and plan accordingly.

New York State opened a vaccination site on UB’s South Campus earlier this year, with 500 Western New Yorkers being vaccinated each day.

“Each day, we are getting closer to crossing the finish line and ridding our region of COVID-19,” Cain says. “So many at UB have dedicated themselves to fighting this virus, and I am heartened to know that their contributions will have played a vital role in helping Western New York return to normalcy.”