/ Modified may 8, 2020 5:42 p.m.

Antibody testing, nonprofits setback, pandemic’s impact on education

Plus, one Tucson hospital prepares for the return of elective procedures.

Arizona served as the backdrop when President Trump toured new N95 mask assembly lines at Honeywell in Phoenix and touted manufacturing as key to the nation’s economic revival. His visit also coincided with an announcement from Gov. Doug Ducey that more businesses could reopen in the coming days.

Ducey said certain metrics related to COVID-19 are in a downward trajectory and the state is in the process of ramping up testing for the disease. Its so-called blitz involves testing up to 60,000 Arizonans over three weekends this month. Testing locations can be found here.

Other efforts to help victims of COVID-19 include an experimental convalescent plasma program the American Red Cross is conducting in collaboration with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. It involves taking plasma donations from recovered COVID-19 patients which is then used to treat people currently critically ill from the disease.

“Anything that we can help out with, maybe the sooner our country can get back to normal. Whatever normal will be,” Paula Sommers said of her decision to donate plasma in early May.

Sommers contracted COVID-19 in March, shortly after returning to Tucson from New York, which she visited with her son and his school. Sommers recovered at home in quarantine.

“I was lucky. I did have people taking care of me. I couldn’t imagine doing this on my own. I don’t think I could have made it,” Sommers said.

COVID-19 survivors who are interested in donating plasma can find more information and sign up here.

In addition to donating plasma, Sommers also participated in the University of Arizona’s antibody testing initiative, which kicked off late last month and eventually aims to test 250,000 health care workers and first responders statewide. The program’s first phase tested 3,000 people in Pima County and wrapped this week. People interested in signing up as testing gradually expands should check the program's website for updates.

As antibody testing in Arizona ramps up, we learned more about how the results can aid the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic from University of Arizona researcher and immunologist Deepta Bhattacharya.

“One of the most important things is it will give you a sense as to how widespread the virus is within our state and within local communities,” Bhattacharya said. “And then, unfortunately, once the second wave hits, I think we’ll get a little bit of a better sense as to how many antibodies do you actually need to protect you from getting reinfected.”

Bhattacharya also explained how researchers are trying to reduce false positives.

“Our test produces a number and that allows us to set very strict statistical thresholds to make sure we’re not getting very many false positives. That does come at the expense of false negatives and we decided that was the lesser of two evils,” Bhattacharya said. “So that if you have some low levels of antibodies there’s a reasonable chance that our test will call you negative.”

Hospitals in Arizona welcomed the return of elective surgeries this month. Many facilities paused services to make room for a possible influx of COVID-19 patients leading to financial setbacks. That included Tucson Medical Center, which estimates shortfalls totaled $16 million in March and April. Chief Operating Officer Mimi Coomler discussed furloughs and pay cuts the hospital implemented, as well as how it is reintroducing elective procedures.

“In surgery, we have reduced our surgical volume by 60%. Diagnostic mammography we put on hold entirely. And so many of our health care workers, we’ve tried to preserve their benefits and their positions, but we’ve reduced their hours. In some cases, up to 60% and in most cases at 30%, minimally,” Coomler said.

TMC looked to guidance put out by Medicare about how to prioritize which elective procedures it should schedule first, according to Coomler. Administrators are also getting feedback from the hospital’s various surgical teams.

“The thing that concerns me or keeps me up at night is the dramatic reductions in heart attacks and strokes that are presenting to the emergency department. And I worry that we have people who say, ‘I don’t want to get COVID so I’m not going to go to the hospital,’ but that decision would result in something worse than COVID,” Coomler said.

The pandemic presents varying challenges for Southern Arizona’s diverse nonprofits. While some have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars, others are seeing demand increase for their services. Tony Paniagua spoke to leaders of a handful of groups in Pima County to see how they’re faring.

Featured in this story: Tohono Chul, Tucson Museum of Art, The Mini time Machine Museum of Miniatures, Emerge! Center Against Domestic Abuse and Casa de los Niños.

State education leaders are in the process of devising guidelines to safely reopen schools for the new academic year that begins in a few months. We got insight into some of the impacts COVID-19 has already had on learning from Francesca Lopez, associate dean of the University of Arizona College of Education.

“I think we need to brace ourselves for a new way of learning, a new situation, a lived experience that many of us have never had before,” Lopez said. “There’s also the advantage of children having been at home and probably — and hopefully — having more time with their family.”

Lopez said some of the uncertainty about what sort of difficulties students may face when they eventually return to school underscores the importance of counselors on campus.

“Without that coping, without the ability to heal from any kind of trauma, it’s very difficult to have the opportunity to learn,” Lopez said.

Typically, this time of year schools are preparing to break for summer. Instead, the coronavirus led them to empty campuses in mid-March. The extended time away from class has created challenges for both educators and students. In Southern Arizona, the Tucson Education Association is vocal in its advocacy for public school teachers. President Margaret Chaney discussed some of the concerns that have emerged during the pandemic.

“Not everyone has computers. Not everyone has the technology. Not everyone has the internet. We act as though, as a society, that everyone has access,” Chaney said. “This whole epidemic has shown, in a way, the need to provide more funding for public education.”

Arizona 360
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