Vice President Mike Pence made a public appearance at the University of South Florida on Thursday, July 2. He was accompanied by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, including U.S. Ambassador Deborah Birx, FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, to address the state’s handling of the COVID-19 virus.
Pence led a roundtable discussion with USF President Steve Currall, Senior Vice President of USF Health and Dean of the USF Health Morsani College of Medicine Charles Lockwood and area medical professionals at the USF Health Center for Advanced Medical Learning and Simulation (CAMLS).
“It was a great brainstorming session. The vice president and governor were very supportive in asking us about the kinds of resources we need,” Currall said. “We heard good ideas from Dr. Birx and Dr. Hahn on what we can do about staffing and we talked about creative ways we can increase our testing capacity, even within the university. I came away with several ideas that will help us prepare for the autumn semester.”
“I’d call it a very positive and fact-driven meeting and I think hopefully some of this will directly benefit the university, such as pooled testing,” Lockwood said.
Birx announced that the federal government is working to support pooled (i.e., preliminary) testing, where samples from entire families or groups can be tested in a single collection medium and sent to a lab for quick results. In the event that one person in the pooled group tests positive, then individualized testing, using medically certified testing procedures, allows for contact tracing and self-quarantines. She said that, for example, entire classrooms can be tested in this manner, as well as students in a university residence hall.
“It was exciting to be here today, to speak with the University of South Florida and your brilliant scientists and physicians here to really start to implement pooled testing,” Birx said. “That is our breakthrough we’ve been working on for three weeks. We think Florida and this university, and this county, is a great place to start.”
“What I saw today, the partnership with Tampa General and the University of South Florida gives me great hope,” Hahn said. “What I saw was a partnership that developed a care plan that really accelerated and advanced the care of patients with COVID-19, something that we’re seeing across the country. That’s something that gives me great hope for Americans afflicted with COVID-19.”
Florida has some of the highest number of cases in the nation, recently setting a record increase of 10,000 positive cases in a single day. According to the Florida Department of Public Health, nearly 170,000 people have been diagnosed and more than 3,600 people have died from COVID-19. The largest percentage of cases has a median age range of 25-34. Health experts attribute the spike to younger adults failing to wear face masks and ignoring recommendations to socially distance.
“We’re with you, and with President Trump’s direction, we’re going to make sure that your governor and the state of Florida have what you need when you need it to meet this moment of rising cases across the state,” Pence said. “We really are here to assure the people of Florida that as we see the rising cases not only in this state, but across the Sunbelt, that we’re going to do whatever it takes to make sure our extraordinary healthcare workers have the resources and supplies.”
USF has taken an interdisciplinary approach to tackling the shortage of resources and personal protective equipment. 3D-printed nasal swabs designed and patented at USF are now being used at hospitals and medical centers nationwide. USF engineering students have manufactured thousands of face shields and have delivered them to Tampa Bay medical professionals. The university also launched the COVID-19 Rapid Response Grant Program to provide funding to dozens of coronavirus-related research projects, several of which have since received support from the National Science Foundation.