Times of crisis test us in many different ways. Usually, in ways we feel like we could have happily lived without. But it is also the case that as we move through difficulties, it sharpens our focus and brings with it a unique opportunity to learn and to appreciate things we usually take for granted. The public health pandemic that has rattled the world is a crisis that is far from over and that means the window for learning and embracing gratitude extends with it.
The continuing contributions of doctors, nurses, paramedics and all medical professionals have been front and center since we first began seeing spread of the virus across the United States early this year. We have seen heroic efforts from health care professionals who serve us all in times of need, no matter who we are or where we come from. Less obvious, has been the work of men and women who have jobs in public transit, in grocery stores and in delivery services. The immediate needs of society have been met due to this workforce.
Quietly, and mostly behind the scenes, Arizona has had another powerhouse at work for its citizens during this crisis – our public universities.
Arizona State University, Northern Arizona University and the University of Arizona have made enormous contributions as first responders since the first case of the coronavirus was discovered in Arizona in January.
As we learn from what has happened and appreciate what we have, one of our realizations is that our public investment in ASU, NAU and UofA brings a return that we seldom fully appreciate.
Crisis brings clarity.
The contributions made to the state by Arizona’s three public universities since COVID-19 changed our lives have been nothing short of amazing.
ASU has converted its state-of-the-art research infrastructure at the Biodesign Institute into a fully FDA-approved and clinically-certified lab capable of performing thousands of COVID-19 tests per day. In May, in an effort to make COVID-19 diagnostic testing easier and more readily available to Arizonans, researchers at Arizona State University developed the state’s first saliva-based test.
Along with that, responding to the need for individuals who test positive to be rapidly isolated to prevent the spread of COVID-19, ASU has registered more than 200 students from the Watts College and Colleges of Nursing and Health Innovation to handle contact tracing across the state. In addition, ASU is working on ways to employ smartphone-enabled systems to aid contact tracing efforts.
ASU’s virology team is working to aid vaccine development efforts using wastewater-based epidemiology to monitor the spread of coronavirus. Additionally, the university has activated a personal protective equipment network that makes 300 3-D printers available to produce equipment and has delivered more than 5,600 pieces of PPE.
Shortly after Gov. Doug Ducey declared a state of emergency, Dr. David Harris, director of the Biorepository at the University of Arizona, shifted his lab’s focus and resources to create the materials needed to produce CDC-approved COVID-19 diagnostic test kits. These collection kits are crucial to detect virus presence and identify infected patients. Dr. Harris’ team worked around-the-clock to produce and ship more than 14,000 kits to health care providers and communities across the state at no cost to the recipients. Many of the kits went to rural and tribal communities, which were unable to secure kits on their own.
UofA later developed what is possibly the most accurate antibody test in the nation and partnered with the state to offer the test to 250,000 first responders and health care workers throughout Arizona. There are more than 35 testing locations across the 15 counties.
As home to Arizona’s two public medical schools, UofA made the move in early April to allow qualifying fourth-year medical students the opportunity to graduate early. These new doctors were able to enter the workforce early to help the state combat the virus. Additionally, UofA public health students volunteer their time and expertise to assist the Pima County Health Department with contact tracing efforts.
NAU has been particularly engaged in work with communities, including Arizona’s tribal nations, that have fewer health care professionals and less access to one of the most important resources available during this pandemic – broadband internet. NAU’s Information Technology Services received special permission from The Navajo Nation to install Wi-fi devices at the Navajo Nation Library and Museum property in Window Rock and the Good Shepherd Mission in Fort Defiance, the location of the NAU American Indian Nursing Program.
NAU’s Center for Health Equity Research has also partnered with Coconino County to assist with investigating cases, public outreach and education regarding test results. NAU professors have assembled an team to develop a new COVID-19 test technology by applying concepts from physics, rather than biochemistry. And NAU’s COVID-19 Testing Center (CTSC), part of the Pathogen and Microbiome Institute, is working with scientists at Vault Pharma, an emerging biotechnology company, to test candidate vaccines against the novel coronavirus.
From northern Arizona to southern Arizona and across the state, our three public universities have responded locally to this global public health emergency with creativity, commitment and with resources.
As a global health crisis has tested the state of Arizona in 2020, the state’s institutions of higher learning have taught all of us something – that our investment in Arizona’s universities not only serves the students who attend, it serves every single citizen who lives here in ways we can appreciate best when it is needed the most.
Sen. Karen Fann, R-Prescott, is Senate president; Rep. Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma, is House minority leader; Sen. David Bradley, D-Tucson, is Senate minority leader, and Rep. Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, is speaker of the House of Representatives.