A Pandemic Strikes, and an Academic Community Responds

A Pandemic Strikes, and an Academic Community Responds

A Pandemic Strikes, and an Academic Community Responds

The novel coronavirus made its mark at the University of Miami, and members of the institution pulled together as a team to safeguard its students, faculty, staff, and patients.
The novel coronavirus made its mark at the University of Miami, and members of the institution pulled together as a team to safeguard its students, faculty, staff, and patients.
by Robert C. Jones Jr.


Walkways that connect a labyrinth of structures were devoid of foot traffic. Eateries in the massive food court were closed. And in a ballpark where 19- and 20-year-olds wielded bats and gloves to bag four College World Series titles and were poised to make a run at a fifth, the cheers went silent.

The COVID-19 pandemic that changed the world had turned the University of Miami almost into a ghost town, as school officials, like so many of their counterparts across the nation, made the painful but necessary decision to send students home for the rest of the academic term in an effort to halt the spread of the virus.

The University’s commencement exercises, academic rites of passage for thousands of graduates, were postponed. Students studying abroad were called home. Athletic competitions and other events were either canceled or put on hold. And, employees no longer commuted to the office but worked from home.

Still, the lectures, lessons, and learning continued—via Zoom, Skype, and on laptops and smartphones.

The changes occurred quickly—seemingly in the blink of an eye. It was the vision of a farsighted university president with a generation’s worth of know-how in responding to pandemics and a task force to support him that made things happen.

Empty Classroom

In truth, the University’s coronavirus response effort started before the decade even came to an end. When government officials in China reported in late December that health care workers were treating dozens of people in the central city of Wuhan for a mysterious pneumonia-like illness with symptoms that included fever, cough, difficulty breathing, and lung lesions, students were still on winter break, catching their breath after a months-long semester of studying and
test taking.

Nearly 8,500 miles away in Coral Gables, University officials were keeping an eye on the outbreak, making plans for the virus’s inevitable arrival in South Florida. By the time the first cases were confirmed in four states, the University had already mobilized its Office of Emergency Management response team and was rolling out its first advisory to the University community and launching a coronavirus response website—which grew to include everything from information and FAQs for students, faculty, and staff to prevention and well-being tips and a comprehensive list of resources.

The University didn’t go it alone. It partnered with Miami-Dade County and the State of Florida to monitor the crisis as it unfolded, and it followed guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization when issuing health advisories to its community of students and employees.

University President Julio Frenk, interim CEO of University of Miami Health System and a former health minister of Mexico, also employed the power of media. In video messages to the University community, he became a calming and comforting voice in a time of crisis, providing updates on the institution’s latest actions to safeguard students and workers. In one communiqué, he reminded everyone that it was “a time for preparation, precaution, and prudence—not panic.”

In his role as chair of the Miami-Dade Beacon Council’s One Community One Goal Academic Leaders Council, Frenk rallied other academic leaders. He met virtually with the presidents of other colleges and universities in the county to discuss ways to help the Greater Miami area amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

With more than 5,000 people participating in three virtual town halls held on March 31 and April 1, University leaders and medical experts answered questions and provided updates for faculty, staff, students, and their families on COVID-19 and its impact on the institution and the University of Miami Health System.


If there was any measure that demonstrated how swiftly and thoroughly University leadership responded to the crisis, it was the decision and ability to migrate courses to a virtual environment after students left for spring recess.

The University extended the semester break for a week, giving faculty time to prepare for remote instruction, a process leadership helped facilitate by launching an academic and business continuity site. What normally would have taken weeks to pull off was done at breakneck speed. All told, faculty, with support from staff at the Distance Learning Institute, accomplished the transition—which required hours of training, the modification of courses and syllabi, and the translation of their teaching into digital platforms—in a week. A feat Jeffrey L. Duerk, executive vice president for academic affairs and provost, called an “extraordinary testament” to their hard work and dedication.

The tools and technology used in the conversion, says Duerk, will serve the University well into the future. “Some might say that this began when we started stepping up efforts to build a robust academic continuity infrastructure following Hurricane Irma,” says Duerk. “Few of us were thinking of a quickly spreading global pandemic; yet, hurricane or pandemic, the ramifications of our efforts will continue to ripple through not only higher education but all areas of our lives in unforeseen ways.”

Emergency Nurse


If there were any University entity that was under the most pressure to respond to the pandemic, it was the University of Miami Health System, which started ramping up its clinical operations weeks before the first coronavirus case was even confirmed in Miami-Dade County.

To care for the influx of COVID-19 patients the health system would see, a task force of physicians, nurses, and administrators changed the way health care is being administered at the 560-bed UHealth Tower, creating special units and teams dedicated to the care of those patients, stepping up screening protocols, and instituting a host of hospital-wide measures to make sure the virus didn’t spread.

UHealth Tower’s north and south penthouse floors were converted to COVID-19 units, with patients quartered in negative pressure isolation rooms that allow air to flow in but not out—a ventilation technique that prevents the escape of aerosolized viral particles.

Teams of physicians and nurses, culled from the hospital’s existing intensive care unit, were created with the purpose of caring solely for those patients. They have been equipped with the resources they need to do their jobs effectively, as UHealth’s coronavirus task force, acutely aware of the rising worldwide mortality rates of COVID-19 patients, created ICU environments with telemetry monitors in each of the negative pressure rooms.

The response has been all-encompassing, “a total reinvention of ourselves,” says Tanira Ferreira, assistant professor of medicine and chief medical officer of UHealth Tower.

Ferreira; Kymberlee Manni, CEO of UHealth Tower; and Dipen Parekh, chief operating officer, are three of the key players in the health system’s clinical response to the coronavirus outbreak. “We need to remain focused for the long road ahead,” Parekh, a renowned urologic oncologist, said in a video message to UHealth employees. “Getting through this will mean each of us stepping in and doing our part."

At UHealth Tower’s Emergency Department (ED), tents have been erected outside to screen patients. There, medical staff members ask patients a battery of questions that range from whether they are experiencing fever, cough, or respiratory symptoms to their recent travel history. Anyone who gives a positive response is placed in an isolated area.

And within the ED, certain rooms have been designated as isolation areas for patients who are high risk. “We consider every patient that comes in as possibly having coronavirus,” says David Lang, medical director of UHealth Tower’s Emergency Department. “Some are a little bit easier to detect; they come in with fever, cough, shortness of breath. We also see patients who come in with something totally unrelated and who need to be admitted for other illnesses but can test positive for the virus.

“So, our process has changed,” Lang continues. “The entire department now wears masks, and we have masks on the patients. When we go in to see patients, we put on protective gear. If it’s high risk, it may be a little bit more gear. And if it’s lower risk, we may not fully suit up. But our approach is to consider every patient a suspect.”

From rapid diagnostic tests to potential vaccines, researchers at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine are also fighting the battle against COVID-19 in their labs, with Natasa Strbo helping to lead the way. The assistant professor of microbiology and immunology enlisted the cancer and infectious disease vaccine she has worked on for more than a decade in the fight against the virus.

“As soon as I heard that something pretty bad was happening in China, I was excited to investigate the potential of our vaccine, which is a really different approach. It’s based on a natural protein, gp96, that is present in our cells and activates immune responses,” says Strbo, whose team is working on the COVID-19 vaccine with Heat Biologics, the biopharmaceutical company that now owns the gp96 platform she helped develop. “We already have tremendous knowledge from our previous vaccine studies, so I think the gp96 platform has a lot of potential in inducing a protective immunity against COVID-19.

Meanwhile, Miller School biomedical researchers were involved in efforts to develop a rapid diagnostic test for the virus. The patient-friendly test, developed by Sylvia Daunert, chair of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and her colleagues, and funded in part by the Dr. John T. Macdonald Foundation, requires a simple pharyngeal throat swab to deliver on-the-spot results on a paper strip in less than 30 minutes.

“Our lab has tremendous experience developing accurate and easily usable tests for infectious diseases such as HPV and Zika,” says Daunert.

Dr. Daunert

Sylvia Daunert, left, chair of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and her colleagues are developing a paper strip test to deliver on-the-spot results in less than 30 minutes.

Dr. Daunert
Dr. Strbo

Natasa Strbo, assistant professor of microbiology and immunology, is studying a potential vaccine.

Dr. Strbo

Nitric oxide system: INOpulse


Novel clinical trials are underway that could have a significant impact on the treatment of COVID-19 patients. An international team of scientists led by Camillo Ricordi, director of the Diabetes Research Institute (DRI) and Cell Transplant Center at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, was granted immediate FDA authorization for a 24-patient clinical trial to test the safety and exploratory efficacy of umbilical cord-derived mesenchymal stem cells to block the life-threatening lung inflammation that accompanies severe cases of COVID-19. This research is being supported through a $3 million gift from North America’s Building Trades Unions to the Diabetes Research Institute Foundation, the fundraising arm for the DRI.

And one physician is using a new therapy that has the potential to delay the need for a ventilator. Pulmonologist Roger Alvarez began treating a COVID-19 patient in late March using a nitric oxide system called INOpulse that had been recently approved by the FDA for treating coronavirus patients. “The cardiopulmonary benefit demonstrated by INOpulse in various indications provides the potential to prevent deterioration in patients with COVID-19, allowing ventilators to be preserved for the most critically ill,” explains Alvarez, referring to the system developed by Warren, New Jersey-based Bellerophon Therapeutics, Inc.


The pandemic isn’t the first challenge the University has faced. The first class of 646 full-time students enrolled at the University in the fall of 1926 when the South Florida land boom had already collapsed and just days after a major hurricane devastated the area. And, in August of 1992, Hurricane Andrew hit the city, damaging buildings on the Coral Gables campus and delaying the start of classes.

In both instances, the institution recovered. So, too, will the University recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, Frenk says.

David Lang, Medical director At UHealth tower, left, chats with President Julio Frenk and Henri Ford, Dean of the Miller school.
David Lang, medical director at UHealth tower, left, chats with President Julio Frenk and Henri Ford, dean of the Miller School.

But there is a lesson that the nation—indeed, the world—needs to learn from the current crisis, he says.

“We will get through this, just as we’ve gotten through every pandemic,” he says. “But once we get through it, we would be foolish to assume that this was the last one. There will be another one; and if we let our guard down, we will again incur the same disruption and cost we are suffering now.

“We owe it to everyone who is undergoing the sacrifices and to all the people who will have died, not to relinquish our responsibility, and to keep the necessary investments and the capability around the world up to the level of the challenge,” Frenk points out. “This is a challenge that we can face. We have the tools. It will be faced successfully. I am very confident, thanks to science.”