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UVa joins national trial of remdesivir, discusses impact of virus on finances, employees

The University of Virginia is providing clinical trials for a potential medication for COVID-19.

UVa announced that it is joining a national clinical trial for remdesivir on Thursday. Trial data will be gathered from an estimated 440 participants worldwide.

The novel coronavirus, which causes the disease COVID-19, currently has no proven treatments or vaccines, though several are in early stages of testing.

In an online town hall Thursday morning, officials said UVa is examining options to support contract workers laid off after dining halls and support services closed; is not planning to refund all fees for students but is issuing some credits; and is looking into providing housing for first responders in now-empty residence halls.

Dr. K. Craig Kent, executive vice president for health affairs at UVa, said during the town hall that UVa and Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital are treating about 25 patients for COVID-19; on Wednesday, the Thomas Jefferson Health District for the first time released local hospitalization numbers, with a total of 19 at that time. UVa is opening its new tower earlier than planned in case capacity is needed for more treatment.

Hospitalized patients with COVID-19 who are showing significant symptoms can choose to participate in the remdesivir trial. Significant symptoms include difficulty breathing, using supplemental oxygen or needing a ventilator.

Remdesivir is an antiviral drug that has been tested in humans with the Ebola virus. It has “shown promise” in animal studies against Middle East respiratory syndrome and severe acute respiratory syndrome, which are caused by different types of coronavirus, according to the university.

“Finding an effective treatment will be incredibly important in our battle against COVID-19,” Kent said.

Trial participants will be randomly assigned to either receive remdesivir or a placebo intravenously for up to 10 days, according to the university. Participants and doctors will not know whether the patient is receiving the medication or placebo. Patients will continue to receive the standard of care for their symptoms.

“Having scientifically sound information about the effectiveness of remdesivir will be helpful as we seek to provide the best care for patients,” Dr. Patrick Jackson, principal investigator for the trial at UVa, said in a news release about the trial.

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which is part of the National Institutes of Health, is funding the study. Gilead Sciences Inc., which developed remdesivir, is supplying it for the study.

During the town hall, Kent also said that at least 90 UVa employees have been quarantined because they’ve contracted COVID-19 or have come into contact with it.

A spokesman for the hospital later clarified that 94 health system employees are on temporary leave without pay, out of a workforce of several thousand.

President Jim Ryan said that the university has plans to provide housing for first responders and hospital workers who may not be able to quarantine or self-isolate at their own homes, but he did not provide additional specifics.

In his remarks, Ryan also noted that Asian American students and faculty have been targeted by xenophobic attacks in recent weeks.

“This is both intolerable and reprehensible,” he said.

Across the country, Asian Americans are reporting verbal and physical attacks as the virus has spread, according to The New York Times. Until recently, President Donald Trump referred to it as the “China virus,” despite public health officials’ emphases that diseases have no ethnicity and that such monikers can encourage discrimination.

Contract employees

UVa Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer J.J. Davis told those listening that many of the university’s contractors have furloughed employees, particularly Aramark, which provides dining services.

“Obviously, this is disappointing to all of us,” she said.

While the university is not providing direct aid to contractors, it has asked companies to structure the furloughs in a way that allows employees to take advantage of expanded state and federal unemployment relief, Davis said.

Aramark has expanded its benefits for workers by adding sick leave and has a drive-thru meal program five days a week for furloughed employees, Davis said.

Financial impacts

Ryan said university officials are crafting plans to mitigate the financial impact of the university’s shutdown.

“There’s little doubt that we will be facing critical financial decisions in the coming weeks and months,” he said.

Davis said UVa is creating short-term plans to cut costs. Ryan added that faculty and staff will remain on the payroll and employment contracts will be honored “for the foreseeable future.” He said payroll has been “made more difficult” because the recently approved federal aid package did not send money to employers to keep their workers on the payroll.

“What we’re facing is really difficult and it’s going to require all of us working together to confront it,” he said.

Ryan said the university’s “sincere hope” is to be open and running for the fall semester, “but it’s too soon to tell” whether that will be possible.

Officials are determining a final date to make a decision about the next semester.

“Our main goal has been to keep our university operating,” he said.

UVa began issuing credits and refunds to students for their housing and dining costs this week.

Provost Liz Magill said it’s too early to know how the virus will affect university enrollment, but noted that 21% of students are international and may be affected by current travel restrictions. Most of those students are in post-graduate programs.

Guard student

Magill also responded to recent reports that a student in UVa’s law school is being asked to pull out of school because their National Guard unit was called to fight the coronavirus in New York.

“I know firsthand that is not correct,” she said.

Magill said many students and faculty are in reserve forces and some have been called up due to the virus. She said that a rule in graduate programs does not allow students to be full-time students and have a full-time job.

Magill said the student is in the process of filing a waiver to the rule, which is the same approach taken in other situations.


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