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  1. Opinion

How the pandemic reaffirms USF’s mission | Steve Currall

The bond between the university and the community has never been more important, the USF president writes.

As a public research university uniquely located in one of the state’s largest metropolitan areas, the University of South Florida takes seriously its commitment to innovative and impactful public service. In fact, this commitment reflects the very purpose of our existence -- extending our educational mission beyond the classroom and ensuring that our research and creative activity brings practical, real-world solutions to today’s most pressing challenges.

This is the reciprocal bond with you, our neighbors, colleagues and friends across Tampa Bay. Never before has this bond been more evident, or more important.

During the past several months, as COVID-19 has disrupted our society, USF scientists, physicians and educators have been working diligently to address this crisis from every angle.

USF voices are providing important thought leadership for key decision-maker. USF Health researchers have launched more than a dozen clinical trials as part of the worldwide effort to reduce the severity and even prevent COVID-19. In collaboration with Tampa General Hospital, USF Health researchers also are leading the examination of a range of medications and treatment protocols that could impact the disease at a symptoms-level for patients and at the cellular level of the virus.

USF Health and Tampa General have also recently opened the COVID-19 Confirmed Clinic. This outpatient telemedicine clinic, operated almost entirely by fourth-year medical students and nurse practitioner students, will provide important care to our most vulnerable populations.

We also have boots on the ground across the state, helping with testing efforts and contact tracing as we move closer to resumption of normal activities. Already, there are approximately 100 USF students deployed across the state assisting the Florida Department of Health in identifying people who may be at heightened risk of contracting COVID-19.

Researchers in the College of Public Health are adapting a symptom-based surveillance program to help identify COVID-19 hotspots in the Tampa Bay region. This critical information will tell a full story of how many individuals are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and which pockets across the community are more affected than others.

Our contributions extend beyond our Health colleges, exemplifying the comprehensive and interdisciplinary nature of a university like ours. For example, the USF College of Engineering has developed an assembly line to produce face shields for medical personnel, donating more than 5,000 so far with a goal of 10,000 over the next month. The face shields can be manufactured at a rate of one every 49 seconds. This effort complements work at the USF Health Morsani College of Medicine to create nasal swabs using 3-D printers. Approximately 22,000 swabs have been delivered to clinics and hospitals in the Tampa Bay region to date. These practical innovations have implications not only regionally, but nationally.

As another example, a technology created by Distinguished University Professor Yogi Goswami has now been approved by the Food and Drug Administration and commercialized into the Molekule Air Pro RX, an air purification device intended for medical purposes to destroy airborne viruses and bacteria. It is approved for use in operating rooms, emergency department waiting rooms and isolation units. The patented technology uses photo electrochemical oxidation to capture and destroy airborne pollutants. The devices are being utilized throughout Tampa Bay clinics to help combat COVID-19.

We expect many more innovations will come to bear in the next months. USF has recently invested nearly $340,000 in a new Rapid Response Research Grants program that seeks to address the pandemic by exploring potential treatments for COVID-19 infections, developing new technologies to help prevent the virus’ spread, launching efforts to protect public safety and managing the emotional impacts of the virus. Already we have funded 14 different research projects that have incredible potential. Six of these 14 involve patented or patent-pending technologies developed at USF.

While so much still remains uncertain, there is one thing of which you can be sure: USF will be unrelenting in our efforts to understand and combat this virus in service to our community.

We thank you for your support of USF scientists, health care providers, innovators and educators. There is no doubt that this crisis will have lasting impacts on our communities and our way of life. But, because of the deepening reciprocity between the university and the communities it serves, we will emerge stronger and more united than ever.

Steve Currall is president of the University of South Florida.

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