The leadership demonstrated throughout the COVID-19 pandemic by the University of South Florida has become a true testament to the spirit of faculty, staff and students – a spirit of perseverance, collaboration and community partnership, despite the emotional and often taxing circumstances that have become part of many daily lives. Over the last year, USF has creatively converted classes and services to quality online formats, established new safety protocols, conducted countless research projects and shared its expertise with the world. Amid the angst and uncertainty, USF has reaffirmed the value of a public research university and the significant role it plays as an urban-grant institution embedded in a vibrant city, serving the Tampa Bay region and state of Florida.
Florida had just started reporting its first cases of COVID-19 when USF transitioned to remote learning following spring break in March 2020. What many first believed to be a temporary precaution has turned into a year-long effort to prevent viral spread throughout the USF community and nation. Innovative Education and Information Technology mobilized to convert more than 5,000 classes on the Tampa, St. Peterburg and Sarasota-Manatee campuses to a virtual format within a week. Faculty members rose to the challenge, adjusting their teaching methods to help maintain academic continuity – even conducting laboratory research through smartphones. While a majority of courses continues to be offered virtually, unique hybrid model courses were introduced during the 2020-2021 academic year, providing some students the option of attending courses in person and faculty the flexibility to continue teaching in a safe environment.
In preparation, USF established safety measures across its campuses that have resulted in a relatively low positivity rate compared to many other universities and was even featured on NBC’S Today Show. USF students, faculty and staff are highly credited for continuing to fulfill the shared responsibility of keeping the university community safe through their own behaviors and by following the guidance of health experts. Those who needed to remain on campus are commended for continuing to maintain critical operations.
Additionally, USF has continued to honor graduates by holding virtual commencement ceremonies in the spring, summer and fall of 2020.
With many on-campus operations on hold and businesses shut down, USF addressed the financial impact of COVID-19 on the community. In late March 2020, it launched the USF United Support Fund, which has raised more than $400,000 in private donations to assist hundreds of students in need. It also invested $20 million to establish the We Got U-SF Scholarship and Waiver, providing financial assistance to nearly 22,000 students. Food pantries on the three campuses have remained open in order to assist those experiencing food insecurity. The USF Counseling Center responded to increased demand, adjusting its services to telehealth and offering daily group sessions to assist students in managing the psychological and emotional effects of the coronavirus. Advising and tutoring services have also remained available in a virtual format in support of student success and to help students graduate on time.
The COVID-19 pandemic rapidly strained the healthcare system, draining supplies and staffing levels. In partnership with Hillsborough County, USF Health established a mass testing site, deployed volunteers to additional locations and offered testing on the Tampa campus, as well as converting physician appointments to telehealth. A team of USF researchers swiftly designed 3D-printed nasal swabs that were manufactured and expedited for use around the world. The Department of Internal Medicine and Division of Infectious Disease launched the COVID Confirmed (COCO) clinic, which provided virtual follow-up visits to thousands of infected individuals discharged from the hospital, helping prevent readmission, and a place for students pursuing medical professions to complete their clinical rotations. The clinic transitioned management to Tampa General Hospital in November and is now the TGH Transitional Care Center. USF Health and Tampa General Hospital also created the joint TGH-USF Health Office of Clinical Research, which is conducting the Novavax COVID-19 Phase 3 clinical trial.
Dozens of students in the College of Public Health immediately signed up as contact tracers to assist the Florida Department of Health in notifying individuals of their potential exposure to COVID-19 and identifying potential hot spots. Faculty and students across disciplines creatively addressed increased demand for personal protective equipment. The Mini-Circuits Design for X Laboratory in the College of Engineering converted its facility into an assembly line to mass produce face shields and ear savers. The School of Art & Art History provided medical personnel its 3D printer, face shields and respirators regularly utilized in its studios.
Research and Innovation:
With so much to learn about the coronavirus, USF created the COVID-19 Rapid Response Research Grants program. It has provided more than $1 million to study the effects of the pandemic and develop innovative solutions to help stop community spread. This includes new tools to monitor the body’s psychological response to COVID-19 and technologies that can rapidly sterilize and electrostatically recharge N95 respiratory masks to restore their original filtration efficiency. Such institutional support has resulted in additional funding from federal sources, such as RAPID grants from the National Science Foundation. Many studies are underway, including one that looks at the impact of remote work, the effectiveness of pooled testing, the accuracy of mortality data, how social mobility has impacted air quality and the creation of various data sets to assist government entities in better understanding the multiple facets of COVID-19.
USF Health experts played a pivotal role in educating the public about the evolving pandemic, conducting thousands of interviews with local, national and international media outlets. Many served on a number of high-level committees, helping guide government leaders in making informed decisions about operational changes. Dr. Charles Lockwood, senior vice president of USF Health and dean of the Morsani College of Medicine, provided personal counsel to Gov. Ron DeSantis and Sen. Rick Scott on coronavirus-related questions and served on the state’s COVID-19 Testing Workgroup, a subcommittee of the Re-Open Florida Task Force.
In July, USF hosted the governor and then-members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, including former Vice President Mike Pence, at the Center for Medical Learning and Simulation (CAMLS) for a roundtable discussion about the virus. A second public discussion ensued with DeSantis in August regarding reopening of K-12 schools.
Donna Petersen, dean of the College of Public Health, serves on the Hillsborough County Health Care Advisory Board. Tom Unnasch and Edwin Michael, professors of epidemiology, advise a variety of county and city agencies regarding the virus’s trajectory and impact on hospitals. The USF Libraries has populated data from a variety of sources to develop an interactive dashboard that tracks cases and vaccination rates and Jason Salemi, associate professor of public health, created a dashboard dedicated to the positivity rate among children.
Dr. Kevin Sneed, dean of the Taneja College of Pharmacy, recieves the COVID-19 vaccine just two days after the first dose was administered in the U.S.
The pandemic has rocked nearly every aspect of our lives. Isolation. Unemployment. Fear. To ease many of these concerns, USF has been highly visible in the community, not just sharing its expertise, but also providing individualized attention to those who may need it most. The Workgroup Enhancing Community Advocacy and Research Engagement (WE-CARE) is working to educate communities of color about COVID-19 and the benefits of vaccination. Volunteers have been actively involved in addressing food insecurity, assisting Feeding Tampa Bay in providing fresh produce, dairy, protein and shelf-stable items to help ease the burden on families during its Mega-Pantry events.
The St. Petersburg campus launched St. Pete Friends, a program designed to prevent loneliness among senior citizens by connecting them with students for regular phone calls, video chats and letter exchanges. The Compass Student Experience office launched the College Pen Pal initiative, which was open to university students across the country as a unique way to socialize when courses transitioned to being fully online last spring. In light of K-12 schools also abruptly transitioning to remote learning, the College of Education provided resources to parents and teachers, helping them navigate challenges posed by the pandemic, including its social and emotional impact on children.
The Center for Analytics and Creativity in the Muma College of Business has been helping keep a pulse on COVID-19’s economic impact by providing real-time data to the Tampa Bay Partnership for its ongoing State of the Region: COVID-19 Community Report. The college also established the Post-Crisis Leadership certificate program, which offered the expertise of faculty and business leaders for free to those eager to get back to work and begin repairing the economy. The School of Hospitality and Tourism Management on the Sarasota-Manatee campus created the free Post-Crisis Hospitality Management Certificate program to help hotels, restaurants and other hospitality businesses navigate the COVID-19 pandemic and prepare for the future economic environment.
The USF COVID-19 Task Force, formed in early March, has been meeting regularly throughout the pandemic, utilizing expertise from USF Health and Emergency Management to make informed decisions regarding campus operations, such as reopening plans, travel restrictions and the residence halls. President Steve Currall and members of his leadership team have hosted more than a dozen town hall meetings, keeping the university community informed of new developments and to answer direct questions from faculty, students and staff. USF is currently in Phase II, which allows for up to 50% of staff to return to the campuses, with individuals who can work remotely continuing to do so. Future decisions will be made based on scientific evidence, guidance from public health experts and the Florida Board of Governors.