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A virus changes everything
A microscopy photo of COVID-19

A Virus Changes Everything

UMass community rushes in to stem the tide of COVID-19

With the Amherst campus all but shuttered in mid-March, UMass has been responding to the coronavirus pandemic in a variety of ways at press time—from epidemiology to microbiology to computer engineering. Faculty members have visited the White House virtually, helped crunch national estimates, conducted research on face masks and virus detection devices, and converted classes and labs to remote learning platforms for their students. And at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a UMass alumna has been working to keep the public safe from the new coronavirus.

Over the past months, we have faced extraordinary challenges. Through these times, we have drawn upon distinct UMass strengths, leaning into our long-standing ethos of innovation, creativity, and a commitment to social justice.

Yes, our resilience has been tested, but I am heartened by the revolutionary spirit that defines this great university. As I witness faculty, students, staff, alumni, and friends coming together to address the crisis, I know we will make it through to the other side and be stronger for it.

—Chancellor Kumble R. Subbaswamy

Data informs state and national response

UMass epidemiologist Andrew Lover, assistant professor for the UMass Institute for Global Health, was halfway through the semester of teaching his course People, Pathogens, and Politics when he was called to switch gears. “I had a set of lectures planned out earlier and now I’m reworking them to bring in current events,” says Lover. “This is just beginning to evolve.”

Lover and others in the Department of Biostatistics and Epidemiology, including postdoctoral researcher Thomas McAndrew, have been aggregating data from expert models to determine how many cases of Covid-19 there might be in the United States. “There’s a big push to estimate that gap—between the known and unknown number of cases,” says Lover. “This will help calibrate the scale of the U.S. response. I can tell you that everything will look remarkably different in just two weeks’ time.”

Lover suggested that only between 10 and 15 percent of all cases are being captured in the United States, a figure based in part on the comparative testing rates of other countries.

Flu forecasting pivots to new coronavirus

Lover recently helped to develop a novel device to do just that: monitor, track, and forecast the seasonal flu and other viral respiratory outbreaks such as the Covid-19 pandemic. The device, called FluSense, is a platform that processes a low-cost microphone array and thermal imaging data with a Raspberry Pi and neural computing engine. Biostatistician Nicholas Reich, director of the UMass-based CDC Influenza Forecasting Center of Excellence; PhD student Forsad Al Hossain; Tauhidur Rahman, UMass assistant professor of information and computer sciences; and Dr. George Corey, executive director of University Health Services all collaborated on the development of this new detector. Models like FluSense can save lives during an epidemic by helping determine the timing of important public health responses such as potential travel restrictions, the allocation of medical supplies, and more.

There’s a big push to estimate that gap—between the known and unknown.

Reich’s flu-forecasting collaborative has produced some of the world’s most accurate models. The Influenza Forecasting Center conducts weekly surveys of more than 20 infectious-disease-modeling researchers to assess their collective expert opinion on the trajectory of the Covid-19 outbreak in the United States.

Reich was also among the world’s leading infectious disease and pandemic forecasting modelers who gathered in March (virtually, of course) to advise the White House Coronavirus Task Force. This included researchers from Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and the CDC in the United States and those based at institutions in England, Hong Kong, South Africa, and the Netherlands.

A mannequin head is shown wearing an N95 mask and surrounded by testing equipment and tubing in Richard Peltier’s lab

A mannequin is used to test N95 masks in Richard Peltier’s lab

Something old, something new

Initial results from urgent UMass research in March revealed that N95 medical face masks, which have fallen into short supply during the Covid-19 pandemic, might be safely reused after sterilization.

To help address the shortage of N95 masks that’s endangering both frontline health care workers and their patients, Richard Peltier, associate professor in the UMass School of Public Health and Health Sciences, partnered with Dr. Brian Hollenbeck, chief of infectious disease at New England Baptist Hospital in Boston, to test whether used masks were still effective at blocking infectious particles after sterilization.

“As environmental health scientists, we are always looking for opportunities to improve public health,” says Peltier. “These results show that there is no real difference in filtration between a new mask and one that has been sterilized.”

The research is already making an impact. The Battelle Memorial Institute, a scientific research nonprofit in Columbus, Ohio, received emergency authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for its technology to decontaminate N95 masks using vaporized hydrogen peroxide. In March, Battelle teamed up with the City of Somerville and Partners HealthCare to install a machine in Somerville that sterilizes up to 80,000 face masks a day. “There's nothing remarkable about this science, but in terms of a public health message, this is a positive thing,” Peltier told the Wall Street Journal on March 31. “If I were faced with no mask or a sterilized mask, I would take a sterilized one any day.”

Dr. Duncan Grossman ’12 captured his coronavirus story in photos published in the Wall Street Journal. Capture yours and send it to us for our special ongoing story.

In addition to helping address the face mask shortage, UMass researchers are also working to supply needed face shields for health care workers. Peter Reinhart, founding director of the Institute for Applied Life Sciences, helped to organize a number of UMass Amherst COVID-19 response teams, one of which developed a design for protective plastic face shields that was informed by clinical feedback. K+K Thermoforming, a company in Southbridge, Massachusetts, produced the first order of 80,000 shields placed by the UMass Face Shield COVID-19 Response Team, which is staffed with engineers, nurses, and other health care professionals. Shields were distributed to medical facilities and other frontline responders in the region before the expected peak of infections.

Teaching labs in the virtual sphere

Erika Hamilton ’01PhD, senior lecturer in the Department of Microbiology, answers the public’s questions about COVID-19 by telephone every weekday on a local television news program. The questions span all aspects of life during the pandemic, even “Should I wash my money?”

Hamilton has also figured out how to teach two laboratory courses virtually. “I’m putting the experiments online,” she says. “I can video myself doing experiments, take still photographs of results, and then the students will do observations from the pictures.” She has 40 students in a general lab course and 25 in an upper-level course on pathogenic bacteriology.

Should I wash my money?

“It’s all new to me, and to all of us,” says Hamilton of the way the pandemic has shifted the semester. “I can tell you that students are stunned, nervous, and afraid. Not only are professors called to teach—for many of us, in a completely different way—but to work with students so they know they are being heard.”

The race for treatments

Alumnus William “Bill” Lee ’77, executive vice president of research at California-based Gilead Sciences Inc., began monitoring the virus in its early stages. The firm is working on clinical trials to see if remdesivir, a drug it developed for treating Ebola, could be an effective treatment for Covid-19.

A World Health Organization panel announced in January that remdesivir was considered to be the most promising therapeutic candidate based on its broad antiviral spectrum and existing data based on human and animal studies.

In May, after early clinical trials showed promising results, Gilead received emergency authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to offer the drug to patients severely ill with Covid-19. “We are working to meet the needs of patients, their families, and healthcare workers around the world with the greatest sense of urgency and responsibility,” said Daniel O’Day, Gilead’s chairman and CEO.

Teaching the public how to stay healthy

Becky Bunnell ’89MEd has also been busy—she directs the Office of Science at the CDC. Speaking from her home in Atlanta, Georgia, she says that her office is helping to validate and rapidly release the CDC’s scientific findings to the public. One recent report concerned the many Covid-19 asymptomatic patients in a long-term care facility in Washington State, one of the centers of early outbreaks.

The simulation exercise we used to train people is tragically happening for real.

Bunnell is not new at this. She’s worked on the front line of health crises across the globe for decades: from AIDS in Uganda and Kenya to Ebola in Sierra Leone. At the CDC’s Division of Global Health Protection, she helped developing nations detect, prevent, and respond to disease outbreaks, primarily in Thailand, Ethiopia, and the African Union. Bunnell reflects, “It’s so difficult to believe, but the simulation exercise we used then to train people is tragically happening for real with the coronavirus today.”

Bunnell’s career foundations were laid at UMass. “What I learned at UMass helped me tremendously in my public health career,” says Bunnell. “The key principles of adult learning and how to engage people in changing their behaviors and perspectives have been really important—whether working on HIV, Ebola, and now the coronavirus.”

At the UMass Center for International Education, Bunnell learned to professionally navigate difficult situations. “I learned how to organize a process that leads to effective outcomes, even when you have a lot of different stakeholders,” says Bunnell. “You have to get people around a table to agree on a rapid response by utilizing a participatory and guided approach based on the principles of adult learning. UMass prepared me well for that.”

From student resources and health resources to research in the classroom and in the laboratory, the UMass community response to the pandemic has been swift and comprehensive, with effects that reach well beyond the flagship campus.

Work from home setup at kitchen table with laptop, photos, cat, snacks, and young child drinking water

Your stories

For perspectives from many alumni and other members of the UMass community on how the pandemic has affected their lives, check out our special ongoing story. Access the latest news and updates on the UMass response to Covid-19.