Before COVID-19 became a fixture in the world, University researchers had been studying the spread and treatments of coronaviruses for years.
But with their work now in the global spotlight, the pandemic has brought new complexities and changes to the daily work of health care researchers at UNC.
The University has played a major role in studies on causes, treatments and safety practices regarding the virus since spring 2020. Although UNC has always been conducting research on infectious diseases and viruses — even coronaviruses themselves — the outbreak of COVID-19 has fostered a new sense of urgency for health care researchers as the medical community continues to fight the virus.
Timothy Sheahan, an assistant professor in UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health’s department of epidemiology, has been working closely with coronaviruses prior to the pandemic.
Sheahan has spent the last seven years working on the creation of anti-viral drugs that would fight not only the viruses we know — but also those that might emerge in the future.
“This pandemic has been wild, and it’s been the best and the worst at the same time,” Sheahan said. “It’s the best because people like me are able to apply our skills and the things we know how to do to have a direct impact on human health, which is pretty rare for someone who studies viruses in academia. But at the same time, I see the amount of work that we have to do and the pace that we’re expected to do the work in is way different than before.”
Rachel Woodul, a research assistant at Carolina’s Population Center, conducted her master's degree and undergraduate thesis on modeling what could happen if a pandemic like the 1918 Spanish Flu happened today.
Specifically, she looked at whether or not the hospital systems in the Triangle could handle the surges in demand for care.
With the outbreak of COVID-19, she pivoted her research to be focused on coronaviruses instead of influenza.
“Since I had already been working on pandemic modeling for years, I was able to pretty much just hit the ground running," Woodul said.
Alongside Paul Delamater, an assistant professor in the geography department, she switched her pandemic flu simulation model to simulate the spread of COVID-19. These new models and maps analyzed factors such as risk by zip code and school district, vaccination rates and the probability that a person at a gathering of a given size could be infectious.
But it’s not just virus researchers whose work has been influenced by the pandemic. Health care specialists from all fields are having to shift their focus to finding the most effective ways to provide COVID-19 patient care.
Mehul D. Patel, a clinical and population health researcher in UNC’s department of emergency medicine, has been studying simulation modeling to investigate how to improve emergency systems of care.
Prior to the pandemic, Patel primarily focused on prehospital emergency care for acute cardiovascular diseases like heart attacks and strokes.
Now, he has shifted his research to focus on the best ways to provide emergency care for COVID-19 patients.
“Due to the virus, my research involving in-person interactions with participants was put on hold for safety reasons, so I began thinking of new ways my work could help with the pandemic in some way,” Patel said. “Since then, I have been collaborating with colleagues at UNC, N.C. State, and ECU on simulation modeling to inform state and local decision making in response to the pandemic."
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