When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, USC Mann immediately responded to safeguard our academic community. But that was only the beginning, as our faculty, students and alumni raced to conduct research, provide clinical and supportive services, and share knowledge to help contain the novel coronavirus’ devastating impact. I am pleased to highlight a few of these efforts in this update.
Some activities have had expansive impact, while others are personal acts of courage and kindness. All illustrate the dynamism and commitment of everyone at the school to advancing health at all levels.
As a community, we are stronger together—especially during challenging times like these. You and your family have my best wishes for your health and wellbeing.
Vassilios Papadopoulos, DPharm, PhD, DSc (hon)
Dean, USC School of Pharmacy
John Stauffer Decanal Chair in Pharmaceutical Sciences
Professor of Pharmacology and Pharmaceutical Sciences
Transition to Online Learning
We quickly shifted to virtual tools for teaching and collaborating, moving all our courses to the web so that our more than 1,200 students can continue their training uninterrupted. Our third-year PharmD students recently presented their scholarly projects completely online, seamlessly sharing their original research with an audience of alumni, faculty, staff and classmates. We are grateful to our preceptors and partners for training our fourth-year students who successfully finished the year and will be graduating on May 15.
In addition, we’ve stepped up faculty training on best practices for delivering courses online to ensure we maintain and enhance the quality of the education we offer students.
The school is also working diligently to restructure and replicate the resources for students that would normally be available on campus. These include virtual advising sessions, internship and career development programming, an online career fair, and appointments with our mental and emotional health counselors. We also are making accommodations to help students directly affected by changes in their training environments at hospitals and other healthcare settings.
We have launched USC Mann Emergency Fund for students facing unexpected medical bills, food insecurity and/or other hardships. We also are developing new student-focused programming through our Wellness Initiative to provide additional support for any students experiencing anxiety, stress or other concerns during this crisis.
Town Hall Talks
To stay in close contact with and support all members of our School of Pharmacy community, we have already held several school-wide Dean’s Town Halls, featuring live Q&A sessions via Zoom. In addition, we launched a series of Town Hall Talks with a presentation by Associate Dean for Clinical Affairs Steve Chen on April 14 and a discussion of health economic considerations by Assistant Professor Bill Padula on April 21. Other faculty and guests will be featured in future sessions.
CPhA COVID-19 Taskforce: When the California Pharmacists Association convened its COVID-19 Taskforce, it tapped Richard Dang on our clinical pharmacy faculty to serve as chair. The taskforce provides resources for pharmacy personnel across the state to aid their work as key members of the healthcare team in coming to grips with the pandemic.
“The first step is to advocate for and provide high-level recommendations for infection control precautions to protect pharmacy personnel,” Dang says. “This is a top priority in the face of shortages of personal protective equipment and considering the public accessibility of many pharmacies. While many businesses remain closed, pharmacies remain a crucial access point for patients to receive the expertise of a healthcare professional whom they know and trust.”
More information can be found at cpha.com/covid19.
Health Policy Implications: The USC Schaeffer Center for Health Policy & Economics website includes a comprehensive collection of information on the implications of the coronavirus for health and health policy. Our experts explain how the recently enacted CARES Act affects COVID-19 test pricing and enrollment for the uninsured, and they also weigh in on short-term and long-term approaches to addressing the pandemic, and more.
Antibody Testing Pilot: USC Mann has several proposals in the works relating to antibody testing—which will be essential to the safe return of millions to their workplaces and social interactions, as well as holding potential for the development of new therapies for COVID-19.
Novel Ventilator System: As COVID-19 patients often require aid to breathe, the shortage of ventilators is a nationwide concern. Susan Bain of our Department of Regulatory and Quality Sciences is part of a team that has developed a novel ventilator system. The technology aims to co-ventilate up to three patients at a time. MS Regulatory Science student Daniel Stemen served as a team leader for testing and qualification of the new device, which is undergoing consideration by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Bain is also sharing her expertise through webinars and a virtual CPhA townhall meeting on such topics as how businesses can repurpose themselves to help battle COVID-19 and how pharmacists can protect themselves from being offered fraudulent test kits.
Resource Allocation and Policymaking: William Padula, of our pharmaceutical and health economics team, has produced several pieces of relevant research, including:
- The advantages of going beyond current testing strategies. In an article for Applied Health Economics and Health Policy, he notes that there is “substantial evidence to support the belief that many of the infected population are asymptomatic.” Therefore, “the U.S. should consider randomizing testing in the general population or potentially shifting test resources away from symptomatic patients and toward those who are least likely to consider themselves infected.”
- The role of nurses. He proposes that investing federal stimulus funds in retraining the unemployed to serve as skilled nurses would bolster the economy. It would also pay vastly more important dividends by saving an estimated two lives per every nurse added.
- Personal protective equipment. Padula also found that long hours of wearing the same mask may result in facial injuries rendering caregivers vulnerable to the very virus from which the gear aims to protect them. “Healthcare facilities should establish clear policies for educating frontline staff on steps to maintain personal hygiene and protect the health of vulnerable, non-infected patients in addition to those presenting with COVID-19,” he and colleagues write in a position paper for the National Pressure Injury Advisory Panel.
Crucial Role for Pharmacists: In a widely-shared opinion piece, Steven Chen, associate dean for Clinical Affairs and the William A. and Josephine A. Heeres Chair in Community Pharmacy, discusses pharmacy’s crucial role in ameliorating the COVID-19 emergency. As physicians and nurses become overwhelmed, pharmacists are poised to help fill the healthcare gap. Chen urged Congress to “enact emergency measures to support legislation recognizing pharmacists as healthcare providers under the Social Security Act for immediate deployment, particularly in the hardiest hit and rural areas.”
On April 8, the Office of Health and Human Services announced new guidance that allows licensed pharmacists to order and administer COVID-19 tests authorized by the FDA.
Supply Chain Shortages: Geoffrey Joyce, chair of the Department of Pharmaceutical and Health Economics, is calling attention to the dangers of shortages posed by current supply chains. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, he told columnist David Lazarus, “One of the ugly secrets of the pharmaceutical industry is that the vast majority of raw materials that go into a prescription drug are produced overseas, mostly in China and India.” As a result, he noted, “[t]he coronavirus shutting down China or India for an extended period of time is likely to have a substantial impact on the supply of many drugs.”
Risk Evaluation: Even though many still have the mistaken belief that the young and healthy have nothing to fear from COVID-19, Irving Steinberg, associate professor of Clinical Pharmacy and Pediatrics, explained to PBS and NPR outlet KQED that low risk should never be confused with no risk.” In addition to dangers for young people with such pre-existing conditions as cystic fibrosis, asthma or pulmonary problems or those taking steroids for various conditions, he adds vaping and smoking to the list of hazards.
Impact on Substance Abuse: Daryl Davies, associate dean for Undergraduate Education and director of our Alcohol and Brain Research Laboratory, warns that the physical damage wrought by COVID-19 will extend far beyond the virus’ direct effects. Economic dislocation, job loss and fear of disease are all triggers for substance abuse, he notes. In addition, alcohol and other substance abuse can increase the threats of suicide and domestic violence. The virus also limits access to people’s usual support systems that are so important to coping with crises. “As social distancing and self-isolation turns from weeks to months, we’ll see more online partying, more Zoom parties and more alcohol consumption, so we’re going to hear about more problems related to alcohol abuse,” Davis says.
Students Stepping Up
The COVID-19 pandemic is a trying time for burgeoning scientists and healthcare providers preparing to start their careers—but USC students are more than up for the challenge. They are not only working as much as safely allowed as pharmacy interns but are also devising new ways to help others cope with this global emergency. In addition, they are proving unflappable as they stay on track with their pharmacy education. Our student pharmacists are already healthcare providers, even as their learning process continues. Student pharmacists are the only health professional students licensed by the state of California.
PharmD student Zade Hikmat created www.FightCovid.us, to help caregivers get the supplies they need to treat COVID-19 patients. The website provides a virtual clearinghouse so people can donate funds and protective supplies to hospitals and clinics across the nation. The site even connects pharmacies making hand sanitizer with healthcare organizations in need of it.
A father as well as a PharmD student, Michael Hsiao founded USC’s first student-parent support group. Now, with COVID-19 forcing students to study from their homes, the safe space he helped create for his fellow Trojans has become a virtual one. The network has not only grown to include students from across the university but is also expanding its supportiveness to staff and faculty. Members connect through a Facebook group to trade tips about staying safe and healthy.
Our third annual Scholarly Project Symposium gave third-year pharmacy students the opportunity to present original research projects to an audience of alumni, faculty, staff and classmates. With the school’s temporary transition to online education, the students adapted quickly and seamlessly to present their findings virtually to the panel of judges.
Kimberly Moore, PharmD, MS Healthcare Decision Analysis ’16, now works from home for her job in the pharmaceutical industry while taking on per-diem shifts on evenings and weekends at an independent pharmacy to help fill a community need. “Over the past month, I’ve gone from telling people we are out of masks and hand sanitizer to having to tell my rheumatoid arthritis and lupus patients I can’t get there hydroxychloroquine,” she says. Other patients are worried about not being able to get regular prescriptions filled, and an increasing number of people are coming in for anti-anxiety medications, she says. “It’s a time of uncertainty and that is not something we can change. The generosity of our community has never been better exemplified than by the six pages of names of people volunteering to grocery shop and deliver medications to the elderly.”
Generous alumni also have donated thousands of masks and gloves to Keck Medicine and the school and alumni also assisted us in rapidly acquiring all protective equipment needed for our pharmacists and staff at our USC-owned and -operated pharmacies.