The novel coronavirus pandemic arrived like a storm front in early March 2020. From Gainesville to Jacksonville, to Central Florida and locations around the state, University of Florida Health caregivers stepped up to their posts even as the world around them isolated from contagion.
And the patients came, first in a trickle, and then in larger numbers as the tide of COVID-19 ebbed and flowed throughout the year. They came from Gainesville and throughout Florida and, in a few cases, from across the country for a fighting chance at recovery.
Jill Holker, a healthy and active ICU nurse from Utah without any medical problems putting her at high risk of a severe case of COVID-19, turned to UF Health Shands Hospital when COVID-19 nearly killed her. UF Health surgeons performed a double lung transplant on Jan. 20, 2021.
About a month later, as a crowd of UF Health staffers cheered, Holker was discharged.
“This hospital is great,” she said. “There’s a handful of people who I feel were really fighting for me, like sincerely fighting for me. And it’s a staff, it’s people who never knew me. And I think that’s one of my biggest takeaways, that this place has a lot of caring people.”
Throughout the coronavirus crisis, UF Health responded by offering its best to get patients like Holker back to their loved ones.
The herculean effort to treat patients fighting for their lives while simultaneously trying to get a handle on the rising number of cases in Florida started, in a sense, at The Villages®. UF Health provided some of the earliest coronavirus testing in Florida to high-risk seniors at the sprawling Central Florida development. It was an early effort to come to grips with how the fast-spreading pandemic was ravaging this vulnerable population.
At the onset of the pandemic, UF Health Jacksonville swiftly worked with local and state health and emergency management officials to begin offering COVID-19 testing for Duval County residents who were at risk of being disproportionately affected by the virus, completing thousands of tests in short order.
As physicians and nurses within the COVID-19 units at UF Health Shands Hospital tried to make sense of the new ways of working, treating very sick and frightened patients who could not have visitors and who often were not allowed their medications, new care strategies emerged. A team of “champions” at the hospital was among the first in the nation to develop strategies for combating delirium in elderly COVID-19 patients, an all-too-common complication in the coronavirus pandemic. Among their innovations: connecting isolated patients to family via iPADs.
New technologies also emerged. UF Health became one of the first in the world to use a novel diaphragmatic neurostimulator to help coronavirus patients breathe easier, greatly reducing their time on a ventilator.
Systemwide, telehealth services at UF Health exploded, rising 7,385% in the early months of the pandemic.
Throughout the health care system, caregivers were there to ease the pain of those who battled the virus but also to celebrate the amazing stories of patients who managed to defeat the invisible enemy. Enell “Trent’’ Porter and his family were celebrating his new lease on life in February after he received a new heart and a kidney in back-to-back transplants at UF Health Shands Hospital. But the family took another body blow when Porter and then his wife, Irish, and their 5-year-old son Caleb all were diagnosed with COVID-19.
Six days later, Porter emerged from a medically induced coma and all three became part of a special and growing group: UF Health patients who survived COVID-19.
UF Health Jacksonville led the way in punching back against the pandemic when it vaccinated the first person in Florida against COVID-19 in December 2020. Health care workers there and at UF Health sites in Gainesville and Central Florida began getting vaccinated immediately.
UF Health Jacksonville has been vaccinating leaders of faith-based organizations since January 2021, garnering their support to help overcome any hesitancy among members of their congregations and the community at large.
UF Health also is working closely with community leaders in Alachua County, including pastors of Black churches and other faith-based and cultural groups in East Gainesville and beyond, to expand access to vaccines and to address vaccination hesitancy. The goal is to equitably distribute vaccines while expanding access for those most at risk of COVID-19.
And the team continues to work closely with the Florida Department of Health in Alachua County to vaccinate residents, including helping staff the largest vaccination effort to date in the county at UF’s Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
Until the storm passes, UF Health caregivers remain on the front lines ready to give the best of themselves.
In 2020, as an uneasy world wrapped its arms around a future of uncertainty and risk, University of Florida researchers responded the only way they knew how: an all-hands-on-deck approach to science.
“What we were watching is what it can look like when a planet literally coordinates its brains, and science is at the heart of it,” says UF science historian Betty Smocovitis, who researches and teaches the history of pandemics.
HiPerGator, UF’s world-class high-performance computer, got a $50 million boost from NVIDIA in the spring and kept pace with COVID and non-COVID data crunching.
The 2020 year in research set records, with UF hitting an all-time high in research awards at $900.7 million despite the two-month interruption. That UF’s research engine — ranked 16th among public universities — would keep purring was evident in the 6,000 funding proposals processed in the 2020 fiscal year, including some boosted by a special $2 million internal research fund for COVID-related projects.
Carlos Rinaldi, chair of the Department of Chemical Engineering, said students in his lab responded to the lockdown by becoming better scientists, finding new ways to conduct experiments and learning computer programming skills that will serve them throughout their careers.
“We couldn’t be in the lab, so what could we do to continue to do science?” Rinaldi says. It turns out — in the Rinaldi lab and across campus — quite a lot.