Dear Medical College of Georgia Friends,

Microbiology Lab is a COVID-19 frontline

We have probably all heard more than we ever wanted to about microorganisms in the last few months. While she doesn’t like this new one any more than the rest of us, Dr. Allison McMullen, has always been fascinated by these organisms — viruses, bacteria and fungi —  that enable both health and wellbeing as well as sickness and death. Her mother, Mary Mayo, was a microbiologist working with a biomedical device company, so Dr. McMullen, medical director of the Microbiology Laboratory and assistant professor in our Department of Pathology, developed her fascination early on for these ubiquitous organisms, most of which have an uncanny and sometimes unfortunate ability to survive and multiply. Her lab, on the first floor of the original, 1956 wing of our hospital, has always been busy with urine cultures, blood cultures, wound cultures, examining cerebral spinal fluid, making sure HIV treatments are working, detecting infections that arise in patients with cancer, and more, while also looking for new ways to treat old enemies that have become resistant to antibiotics.

The lab is a first stop for coronavirus testing samples

Like many of our lives, Dr. McMullen’s life and that of her hardworking team changed dramatically with the emerging coronavirus. She remembers a January meeting when Dr. Phillip Coule, MCG graduate and CMO of AU Health System, was starting to pull people together to talk about how to handle this virulent virus infecting thousands and killing at that time dozens in central China. Within no time, this virus made it to the United States and the work of the microbiology lab, where the usual work has not gone away, shifted by necessity. The Microbiology Lab is the first stop for the nasopharyngeal swabs collected from our inpatients, at drive-thru testing sites and at other hospitals we are now working with, and they are receiving 200-300 daily. The lab labels and preps the samples and determines which test gets done and where. The Microbiology Lab itself offers a 45-minute test they use for patients, for example, who come to the Emergency Department with suspicious symptoms, so the physicians there can make good, quick decisions like whether a patient needs to be admitted to the hospital, and to our rapidly expanding specialty areas for coronavirus treatment. Dr. McMullen says this rapid testing also helps conserve invaluable personal protective equipment — PPE is now part of the vernacular — because we know a patient’s status so quickly. It also saves time because you can run a single sample immediately. The Italian-developed, 90-minute test they also use enables eight samples to be run at one time. The GEM Lab’s test, which we talked about last time, enables an even bigger batch. So good decisions get made by the Microbiology Lab on which test is best for which patient. This is an important front line and I want to thank this team for really stepping up to it.

Dr. Allison McMullen is the lab’s medical director

They are well-suited for the tasks. Dr. McMullen, who came to us nearly four years ago, focused on emerging infectious diseases, particularly viruses, during her PhD at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, and subsequently did postdoctoral work at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. She was studying the mosquito-borne Zika virus before most of us ever heard of it. So she was not really surprised by COVID-19, but continues to be surprised and dismayed by its impact on the world. She also was not surprised by the microbiology team stepping up to this new and moving line coronavirus has drawn. But she rightfully acknowledges a heightened sense of pride as the microbiology team members have stretched morning shifts and evening shifts to meet in the middle and provide a new “third shift” that enables round-the-clock testing. People are noticing this frontline team that is hidden behind the closed beige doors of their first-floor lab. The 13-member team includes Nikki Cain, medical laboratory scientist (MLS); Lauren McDanel, MLS; Leslie Morgan, MLS; Leanne McClellan, MLS; Frances Coulson, MLS; Emily Durham, MLS; Adrienne Lester, MLS;  Raghad Abdelhaq, MLS; Amanda Nance, MLS; Darlene Rainwater, medical laboratory technician;  Vontrise Stewart, lab assistant Scott Stavely, MLS student; and Chesley Ann Kemp, MLS student. Thank you all for your invaluable service against this formidable foe.

Dr. Brandy Gunsolus is helping keep tabs on testing numbers

While the round-the-clock testing happens, Dr. Brandy Gunsolus, utilization manager for clinical pathology, is keeping up with what is being done and found and whatever else is needed in these unprecedented times. She and Dr. McMullen are good colleagues and the lab voice at countless meetings about who and how many can be tested. Dr. Gunsolus, a clinical laboratory scientist, helps keep up with many of the important statistics updated here daily. With the concerted effort to enhance testing ability, she has watched the number of pending tests dwindle and the norm become patients getting their results that same day instead of days later, which again is great news for a multitude of reasons. That includes giving same-day test results seven days a week to those who come for drive-thru testing with the great help of the College of Nursing and executive associate dean Dr. J. Dwayne Hooks Jr. Easter Sunday was the first day off in a long time for many of these folks. “Everybody is thinking out of the box right now,” Dr. Gunsolus says, and the results include patients coming off ventilators and going home.

Emergency Department mounts a new frontline against COVID-19

The big blue tent in front of the Emergency Department is yet another ready reminder of coronavirus’ impact. Our Department of Emergency Medicine, which was already reaching out to rural hospitals to provide emergency medicine services through telemedicine, is also a big player is the telemedicine visits requested through the AU Health System app. For those who come right to us, the big blue triage tent is the frontline for patients who show up with respiratory complaints and/or fever, two classic symptoms of coronavirus infection. Inside the big blue tent they too will be seen via telemedicine, and Dr. Richard Schwartz, chair of the department tells us, they are finding that about 25% of those patients don’t need to enter the actual Emergency Department. For those who do need to come inside, as of this week, it looks and functions very differently. Their new configuration includes five new critical care rooms that have negative pressure. That’s basically a room where air just moves into it, then is filtered and flows directly outside with the idea of reducing the spread of airborne microorganisms, a big concern with coronavirus. In these rooms, our physicians can more safely perform procedures like inserting an endotracheal tube, which can send coronavirus, for example, out into the air. They also now have an additional space with negative pressure that provides more, safer room for resuscitations and other needs.

Reconfiguration results in safer environ for patients and providers

We had six negative pressure beds before and now have 21 with this new configuration. More good news is the Emergency Department also has acquired the old adjacent blood bank area as extra swing space that provides 13 more beds if needed. “This just gives us more capacity to take care of critical care patients,” Schwartz says. He says this new landscape, which essentially means the Emergency Department now has three major areas: a respiratory area, a Level 1 trauma and other health emergency side for problems like strokes and chest pain, and the pediatric emergency department in addition to this valuable swing space, is a keeper. “When we get to the other side of this, we will have really excellent capacity for taking care of patients and minimizing waiting times,” Schwartz says of the post-COVID-19 days we all long for. He is extremely appreciative of the support of health system leadership for this rapid reconfiguration; we all are. Check out these great stories by Tom Corwin with The Augusta Chronicle and Ashley Osborne with WJBF-TV.

Convalescent plasma treatment given to first handful of patients here

In our growing treatment effort, we started this past weekend using the antibody therapy, called convalescent plasma, which is still considered investigational and during which the plasma of those who have successfully mounted an immune response to this virus share their antibodies with a person trying to fight it off. Dr. Jose Vazquez, chief of our Division of Infectious Diseases, said by midweek we had already used this therapy on six patients in critical care. As we learn more about the potential of this 100+ -year-old approach, attributed with cutting fatality rates in half during the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, it may be expanded to less acutely ill individuals today with COVID-19, Dr. Vazquez tell us. Here’s hoping.  Check out this great story with WRDW-TV’s Laura Pugliese about making this therapy available. I want to thank our partners at the Shepeard Community Blood Center for their diligence in making this possible. Dr. Gunsolus also says that antibody testing, another national conversation emerging this week, should be available right here in a couple of weeks.

Expert panel shares COVID-19 insight with fellow physicians

Speaking of Dr. Vazquez, he, Dr. Coule, Dr. McMullen and Dr. Ravi Kolhe, director of our GEM Lab, provided an informative panel discussion about coronavirus this Tuesday for physicians. This panel resulted from a good conversation late last week among MCG Faculty Senate leaders wanting to ensure we are doing all we can to support our fellow physicians and other providers in our community and state in their work against this virus. Good information and more good citizenship by all involved. Check it out here.

MCG students help hard-hit Albany make the most of protective masks

Of course our amazing students continue to take on the coronavirus fight as well. Third-year Aditi Talkad shared this week that our students’ work to provide homemade masks for the hardworking, hard-hit Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital, our great educational partners in Albany, has yielded more than 800 masks. Their homemade masks will cover and give extended life to the valuable N95 masks. It’s also cool and not really surprising that community members from down that way have joined this effort and that businesses and donors have provided invaluable support as well. More to come from our students and from all of you I know who have taken up this fight. Please know again how proud I am of each of you every day and even more so these days.

MCG alums Drs. Leslie Lamar Wilkes Jr. and Roy Wesley Vandiver pass

Finally today, we share the loss of two esteemed MCG graduates, Dr. Leslie Lamar Wilkes Jr., of Savannah, and Dr. Roy Wesley Vandiver, of Atlanta. Dr. Wilkes, a 1965 graduate, was an orthopaedic surgeon who did the first modern hip replacement in scenic Savannah where he practiced his profession for 40 years. He also served his country in the U.S. Navy, including a year as Ship’s Surgeon on the aircraft carrier USS Randolph. He was a leader in his community and profession, receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012 from the Georgia Medical Society. He was an active member of our Alumni Association, serving on the board and as president in 1996. Dr. Vandiver was a neurosurgeon, a 1959 MCG graduate and a leader whose professional service included chief of Staff of Dekalb Medical and president of the Dekalb Medical Society, the Georgia Neurosurgical Society and the Medical Association of Georgia. When he started his career, there were 25 neurosurgeons in Georgia. He would eventually become chairman of the physician-owned MagMutual Insurance Company until his retirement in 2011. He was honored by us, his alma mater, as a distinguished alumnus in 2008, and was excited to help ensure great turnout for last year’s Alumni Weekend, which he did. Our thoughts are with the families and many friends of these two great men and physicians.

Upcoming Events

April 17 – The Raft Debate, the annual fun, educational deliberation of which type of doctor should get the only raft on a sinking ship, sponsored by the MCG Alumni Association, 6:30 p.m., Harrison Commons. CANCELED.

April 24-26 – Alumni Weekend featuring the MCG Dean’s Reception and Alumni Association Banquet, 6 p.m., April 24 at the Augusta Marriott; Campus Discovery Tours, 9:45 a.m., April 25, starts at the Summerville Campus; President’s Cookout, noon, April 25, D. Douglas Barnard Jr.  Amphitheater, Summerville Campus; Reunion Dinners, 6 p.m. reception, 7 p.m. dinner, 9 p.m. Alumni After-Party, Augusta Marriott; MCG Emeritus Club Breakfast, 9:30 a.m., MCG Alumni Memorial Service, 10:30 a.m., both in the J. Harold Harrison M.D. Education Commons. POSTPONED

April 30 – President Keel’s State of the University Address, 11 a.m., Maxwell Theatre, Summerville Campus. OPTIONS BEING EXPLORED.

May 7 – Virtual Hooding, 2 p.m., more details to come early May.

August 20 – MCG Faculty Senate Awards, 5:00 p.m., Lee Auditorium.

Take good care out there.

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