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March 16, 2020

As countries around the globe work to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 — which causes the illness COVID-19 — researchers and practitioners from every discipline at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health are turning their expertise into action to support the pandemic response.


Around the world, several clinical trials are being conducted to find treatments for COVID-19. In particular, five clinical trials are currently evaluating the efficacy and safety of remdesivir, which was identified by the World Health Organization (WHO) as the most promising agent to treat COVID-19. The selection of appropriate endpoints is critical to the success of these trials, but the endpoints adopted in the current trials do not capture the entire clinical experience of a patient. Indeed, very different endpoints were adopted by each of the five trials, even for patients with the same severity of the disease. Drs. Danyu Lin and Donglin Zeng in the Department of Biostatistics proposed the use of a common endpoint for all remdesivir trials, which would allow researchers to evaluate the efficacy of treatments by a common criterion, which is particularly important when combining evidence from different trials.


Drs. Ralph Baric, Timothy Sheahan, Lisa Gralinski and many others in the Baric Lab are racing to find answers to COVID-19. Dr. Baric also is working with the Vaccine Research Center at the National Institutes of Health to evaluate lead candidate vaccines; additionally, he serves on the WHO and Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations working groups, which are seeking countermeasures against the novel coronavirus.

Dr. Allison Aiello served as a member of the WHO Working Group on public health measures for mitigating the risk and impact of influenza, which now serves as a source for guidance on public health measures for COVID-19. One of her research papers on schools closings was mentioned in a recent New York Times opinion piece that discusses the importance of timing during epidemics.

Dr. Andy Olshan organized a March 3 coronavirus seminar to share what experts knew about the outbreaks at that point.

Dr. Kim Powers, who models infectious diseases in populations, recently gave an interview on why the exponential growth of COVID-19 makes containment more challenging and is helping the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) with projections of the COVID-19 trajectory in the state.

Dr. Jim Thomas is the lead author of the American Public Health Association’s code of ethics — a document that balances the value of individual independence against societal interdependence when it comes to public health. He recently has spoken to Quartz and the BMJ Global Health Blog about ethical pandemic control and the need for social distancing.

Dr. David Weber is in charge of infection prevention efforts at UNC Hospitals and has spoken about emergency scenario planning for health care teams.

Environmental Sciences and Engineering

COVID-19 is believed to be spread primarily through person-to-person contact; however, concerns have risen about the possibility for fecal-oral transmission. Water researcher Dr. Mark Sobsey spoke about potential global implications during a recent webcast.

Health Behavior

Dr. Liz Chen and Hannah Prentice-Dunn, project manager for cancer intervention research at the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, are co-leading a task force to explore solutions to the emergency childcare needs of health care workers in the UNC health care system. The team is gathering information and resources, testing different solutions and making informed recommendations as quickly as possible to ensure health care workers have childcare coverage during school and childcare center closures — especially as the need for health care workers grows. The task force includes health behavior students Emily Newman and Kathryn Carpenter in addition to alumna Dr. Cristina Leos, co-founder of MyHealthEd, Inc., and Vichi Jagannathan, co-founder of the Rural Opportunity Institute.

Health Policy and Management

As one of the largest sources of health insurance coverage in North Carolina, the Medicaid program has implemented a number of emergency provisions in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Dr. Marisa Domino is working with a team at the N.C. Division of Health Benefits to examine the use of emergency provisions and monitor the impact of policies such as transitioning office visits to telemedicine, extending supplies of pharmaceuticals, and offering testing reimbursement for Medicaid enrollees and providers.

In addition, Bill Gentry, a disaster management expert, has joined both UNC and the Gillings School’s COVID-19 working groups and is supporting the University’s emergency operations center. He also shared guidance on emergency preparedness with U.S. News and CNN, covering topics like what to stock up on for social distancing at home.

Dr. Leah McCall Devlin is helping the Office of NCDHHS Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen with public pandemic response. She also is consulting with numerous agencies — including the YMCA, the Department of Public Health and the N.C. Medical Society — and is participating in strategy planning on the national level as chair of the CDC Foundation. She signed up to mentor new state health officials through the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, and is advising Dr. Liz Chen and Hannah Prentice-Dunn’s health care worker childcare task force.

Maternal and Child Health

The Carolina Global Breastfeeding Institute (CGBI) in the Department of Maternal and Child Health (MCH) provides support to hospitals throughout North and South Carolina through the ENRICH Carolinas breastfeeding training program. As these health facilities respond to the novel coronavirus outbreak, Dr. Aunchalee Palmquist is spearheading efforts to provide implementation support and guidance for recommended infant feeding practices in the context of COVID-19.

Staff members in the N.C. Child Care Health and Safety Resource Center — which is managed through MCH — are working closely with NCDHHS leadership to support child care facilities throughout the state of North Carolina, in part by developing interim guidance (PDF) and handwashing resources (PDF) for child care settings. Program staff also have been temporarily assigned to advise child care facilities in regions that do not currently have health consultation support. In addition, project director Jacquie Simmons is a member of the COVID-19 Governor’s Education and Nutrition Working Group.

North Carolina Institute for Public Health

The Institute is providing consultation and technical assistance to local and state public health agencies across North Carolina. Additionally, staff are coordinating Gillings School student and faculty volunteers to support the work of the N.C. Division of Public Health in the State Emergency Operations Center.


No Kid Hungry N.C. — an initiative based in the UNC Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention — has been very active in providing food to kids during school closures. Doctoral student Jessica Soldavini is on the core team at the organization, which maintains a list of school meal availability during COVID-19 closures in North Carolina.

Public Health Leadership

Faculty are working with students in the MPH@UNC Leadership in Practice concentration, who take all their courses online. Students in this program were already familiar with remote teaching, but faculty are considering class modifications in recognition of the many changes students are experiencing with their jobs and family situations.

Additionally, the Public Health Leadership Program offers an online certificate in field epidemiology — this 12-credit certificate prepares workers with the core epidemiology skills needed to address existing and emerging diseases.

See more general information about COVID-19 at the Gillings School’s Coronavirus Information Portal.

Read more about how Gillings students and alumni are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic in our next feature.

Find a roundup of all our experts’ coronavirus-related media outreach in this Twitter moment.

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