Summer 2020
Michael Austin
Cover Story

18 ways the U of M is targeting the COVID-19 crisis

...and how you helped make it happen

The University of Minnesota has been hard at work trying to end the COVID-19 pandemic and ease the impact on those affected by it. After the first case in Minnesota was confirmed March 6, donors stepped up to support research and innovation, help frontline health care workers, assist students who lost jobs and couldn’t go home when campus closed, and provide comfort within the greater community. Here’s how you’ve made a difference.

MN CovidSitters board member Tom Schmidt, ’20 M.D., with a friend.
Courtesy Covidsitters

Help on the homefront

1. Watching kids, running errands

When COVID-19 made its way to Minnesota, medical students—including Sara Lederman, who is in her third year at the U of M—faced canceled rotations and a hasty move to online classes. Frontline health care workers, meanwhile, were trying to keep things running at home and at work.

Recognizing a need, Lederman, a former Walter H. Judd fellow, founded MN CovidSitters with a group of fellow medical students. The volunteers help those working in hospitals—from janitors and cooks to doctors and nurses—with child and pet care, grocery shopping, and general errands.

The group came together in just a few days and has been immensely popular. Between March and May, nearly 400 MN CovidSitters helped 248 Twin Cities families, running 156 errands, caring for 38 pets, and logging 1,730 hours of service.

Lederman says the MN CovidSitters will continue their efforts for another year. They would like to do more targeted service projects that help lower-wage health care workers, she says.

2. Raptors in the (virtual) classroom

As Minnesota schools moved classes online this past spring, middle- and high-school science teachers got a new educational tool. Thanks to a grant from the Cargill Foundation, the University of Minnesota Extension and the University’s Raptor Center teamed up to create Outdoor Investigations in the STEM Classroom. 

As part of the curriculum, students watch videos that describe scientific investigation, then learn how to diagnose, treat, and rehabilitate an injured raptor. They conduct a research project about lead poisoning of bald eagles. And they use their new knowledge to do their own outdoor investigation and data gathering.

“Students use scientific approaches in outdoor investigations that will help them develop a better conservation ethic and an interest in research,” says program coordinator Lisa Curtis.

3. Comfort for the little ones

As a third-year pediatric resident Holly Belgum, ’17 M.D., wanted to do something for the kids who were affected by COVID-19, including her young nieces, who were separated from their father because of the virus.

“I just wanted to do something to comfort them,” says Belgum, who received scholarship support during her time at the U of M Medical School. 

Belgum sent her nieces two stuffed animals—a pig and a bunny. “Originally, I thought it would be cute if there was a drawing to go along with the stuffed animals. So I found a bunch of yellow paper, a pen, and really old water colors. Then I had the idea for a poem, and suddenly I was spending my whole weekend painting pictures,” she recalls.

The result: Piggy & Bunny and the Stay-At-Home Plan, a book that tells the story of two best friends who can no longer see each other because they are quarantined.

“I want this book to show that it’s OK to not know what to do. It's OK to break down, to feel all sorts of emotions in a day,” she says. 

The givers

4. Funding equipment and innovation

As the first cases of COVID-19 appeared in Minnesota, University health experts got to work trying to slow the spread and provide life-saving care to those with the virus.

Their efforts were bolstered by the Vice President’s Emergency Support Fund—a resource administered by Jakub Tolar, Medical School dean and vice president for clinical affairs.

6. Support for students 
When the U of M cancelled in-person classes and businesses closed in mid-March, some students struggled to pay for essentials like food, rent, and medical necessities. Thanks to the Student Emergency Fund established by President Joan Gabel, 731 donors had given more than $117,000 to help those students as of July 31. “It’s incredible what these donors are doing,” says Cassidy Drummond, ’20 B.A., who used the emergency grant to pay for rent when her weekly work hours were cut from 30 to 10. “It makes me feel like I’m not alone.”
Courtesy Cassidy Drummond

The fund provides crucial financial support for ventilators, external life-support equipment, N95 masks, and other personal protective supplies. It also helps advance the U’s clinical trials to treat patients at different stages of infection.

More than 400 donors have contributed more than $8 million to the fund as of August 1, including a $100,000 matching donation from TCF Bank and a $2 million pledge from 3M.

The fund also supports the Office of Academic Clinical Affairs’ Collaborative Outcomes: Visionary Innovation and Discovery (CO:VID) Grant program, which has furthered more than 60 projects, including production of a low-cost ventilator and development of a test that uses tears to detect the virus.

5. Miles for a mission

On May 16, students across all campuses and colleges graduated from the University of Minnesota together in an online ceremony. That same day, U of M development officers John Kilbride and Shawn Keenan ran a marathon (26.2 miles) and half marathon, respectively, to honor the graduates and raise money for frontline health care workers.

“On the day of the run, it was a little emotional thinking about those who are putting their lives on the line caring for patients, and those who were graduating as a vet, doctor, nurse, public health care worker, pharmacist, or dentist,” says Kilbride, an avid endurance runner.

Thirty-five friends and colleagues sponsored the runners, donating $3,281 to the U of M’s Caregiver Emergency Fund.

The protectors

7. Designs for face masks

With personal protective equipment in short supply, a team from the University of Minnesota designed three face mask prototypes, under the name MNmask, made from filter material donated by Cummins Filtration and bendable components from Bedford Industries. 

The modified anesthesia mask
Courtesy Linsey Griffin

One is a modified anesthesia mask; the second, a single-use, disposable mask; and the third, a general-purpose mask that can be assembled using scissors, a ruler, and a stapler.

Mechanical engineering professor David Pui’s team tested how well the masks protected against virus-containing droplets. Linsey Griffin, assistant professor in the College of Design, addressed sizing and fit. Mechanical engineering professor Will Durfee and McKnight Presidential Endowed Chair of Chemistry Marc Hillmyer ensured the materials will not be affected by supply chain shortages. 

Student workers have produced more than 6,000 disposable masks for a crisis supply at M Health Fairview facilities. They’ve also produced 400 modified anesthesia masks and made kits for the DIY masks that can be constructed with a scissors, ruler, and stapler.


8. …and shields and filters

As a student worker in the College of Science and Engineering’s Anderson Student Innovation Labs, Cassie Johnson, ’20 B.S., wanted to do something to alleviate the shortage of personal protective equipment.

Components for 3D-printed face shields
College of Science and Engineering

“Anderson Labs had around 40 3D printers sitting idle, and I thought we could capitalize on the open printers,” says Johnson, an industrial and systems engineering major and recipient of the Karin J. Schiebe Marching Band Scholarship.

Johnson had done her senior design project with 3D printer manufacturer Stratasys, which shared design files for face shields and face mask filters. After classes moved online, she suggested to Anderson Labs manager Ben Guengerich that they print face shields in the quiet lab. Together, they alternated working mornings and afternoons.

Guengerich then recruited four more students to build filters for the University team producing face masks. Altogether, they produced 300 face shields and 500 mask filters. The shields were distributed by Stratasys to health workers around the country. The face masks and filters are being used by M Health Fairview clinics. 

9. Safety shield

10. The color of COVID

“We will all know somebody—we will all love somebody—who will die from this disease. Eventually there won't be any blue states or red states. There won't be any blue cities or red rural areas. It'll all be COVID-colored.”

--Michael Osterholm, Regents Professor and McKnight Presidential Endowed Chair in Public Health, quoted on NPR’s Fresh Air on June 17. Osterholm directs the donor-supported Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the U of M and has been warning of a potential global pandemic since 2005.

In addition to designing masks, gowns, and face shields, researchers from the U of M and M Health Fairview built a protective shield to minimize health care workers’ exposure to droplets emitted by coughing and sneezing—the primary way COVID-19 is spread.

The Respiratory Safety Shield and System is a see-through box consisting of plastic barriers with armholes separating workers from patients.  A HEPA filter under negative pressure collects infectious particles and droplets inside the system. 

“A procedure box should be as effective as—or even more effective than—wearing a face shield, as it puts the barrier closer to the patient and can provide protection for multiple health care providers simultaneously,” says Chris Hogan, professor in the College of Science and Engineering, “The suction and HEPA filtration provides additional protection beyond what surgical or even N95 masks can provide.”

The initial prototype with HEPA filtration has been used in M Health Fairview facilities, and the team continues to develop and refine the system. The project was funded by a donor-supported CO:VID grant. 

11. Gowned and ready to go

In April, leaders from M Health Fairview asked College of Science and Engineering professor Steven Saliterman for help designing disposable isolation gowns for health care workers. Within two weeks, 17 of his biomedical engineering students had created a safe, functional gown design that could be rapidly manufactured.

Steven Saliterman

Students, working mostly from home and through videoconferencing, created drawings and prototypes; worked with M Health Fairview doctors and nurses, and faculty from the College of Design to finalize the design; sourced a Food and Drug Administration-certified material; and found a local manufacturer to produce the gowns.

“The exposure I gained in this project was as valuable as any course work I’ve done here at the University,” says Sam Newell, ’20 B.S., a scholarship recipient who was in charge of manufacturing for the initiative.

The manufacturer, Red Fox Innovations, made more than 30,000 gowns for M Health Fairview and local nursing homes. Additional manufacturers have since begun making them.

The COVID detectors

12. Ten-minute test

Testing for the virus that causes COVID-19 is considered key to controlling its spread. A University of Minnesota team has designed a portable, low-cost handheld device to detect the virus in blood and respiratory material and deliver results in as little as 10 minutes.

A prototype of the MagiCoil
Office of the Vice President for Research

Through a smartphone interface, the technology platform—called MagiCoil—also can send test results to health professionals, hospitals, and government agencies to monitor the spread and allow for more timely decisions about care.

The work was led by Jian-Ping Wang, Robert F. Hartmann Chair and a Distinguished McKnight University Professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering in the College of Science and Engineering, and Maxim Cheeran, associate professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine.

MagiCoil is based on simple magnetic principles and builds on Wang’s earlier work, which includes the feasibility of its use for detecting the H1N1 virus. Wang says the units are expected to cost about $100. He hopes a fully automatic device will be available in four to six months.

13. Detecting different strains

14. Test space

Nestled in the neighborhood surrounding TCF Bank Stadium, two buildings in the U’s Biomedical Discovery District—the Microbiology Research Facility and the Cancer and Cardiovascular Research Building—are now home to some of the state’s on-site COVID-19 testing.

Because the University stopped much nonessential research to abide by the state’s stay-at-home order, lab space became available for COVID-19-related work, including processing tests from across the state.

Led by Anthony Killeen, the Ellis S. Benson Professor in the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology, and Sophia Yohe, an associate professor in the department, the testing space was up and running in about five days. 

Mark Osborn, assistant professor in the Medical School’s Department of Pediatrics, is working with colleagues to develop a faster diagnostic test for COVID-19 that also may help detect different strains of the virus. It requires no specialized equipment or training and can be done in doctors’ and nurses’ offices in parts of the state without quick access to advanced diagnostics.  His team is also working on antibody testing. Osborn hopes the tests will be ready by fall.

This initiative, like the MagiCoil, was made possible by a CO:VID grant. “I want to extend my deepest gratitude to the senior U of M leadership and to the generosity of the donors,” Osborn says.

15. Who has immunity?

Marc Jenkins, Regents and Distinguished McKnight University professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology and director of the Center for Immunology, was reviewing the validity of emerging COVID-19 antibody tests and wasn’t satisfied with the results. Antibody tests are crucial because they can help determine who might have immunity to the virus and can no longer spread it.

Jenkins collaborated with coronavirus expert Fang Li in the College of Veterinary Medicine, and Amy Karger in the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology, to develop and validate an improved antibody test in just three weeks.

The test is now used as part of the state’s plan to perform up to 20,000 diagnostic and 15,000 antibody tests per day in Minnesota.

16. Traces in tears

Another CO:VID grant recipient, ophthalmologist Hossein Nazari, will soon begin testing to see if COVID-19 can be diagnosed using tears. “We know that viruses and bacteria can be present in tears, so it’s worth looking into,” he says.

To test this, his team will use tiny tubes to collect tear samples from the corner of the eye—a process that’s safer and less painful than using nasal swabs. Nazari’s group also hopes to develop a handheld machine that collects a tear sample, runs a diagnostic test, and produces results within minutes.

17. Pursuing promising treatment

Several ongoing clinical trials are investigating existing drugs and exploring novel cell-based therapies that may be able to prevent infection or minimize the virus’ impact on the body. The research efforts have been bolstered by funding from the Vice President’s Emergency Fund.

18. There is such a thing as a free lunch 
On March 30, staff in M Health Fairview’s emergency room got an unexpected boost: the Grammy-winning singer/songwriter Lizzo bought them lunch.
Many others also have bought or donated food for M Health Fairview workers, including:
·      JP Morgan Chase 
·      Northwestern Mutual 
·      Feeding the Frontline MN
·      Caribou Coffee 
·      Avocadish 
·      Cardigan Donuts 
·      Wahlburgers 
·      CRAVE
M Health Fairview

One of the initial trials explored the effectiveness of hydroxychloroquine—an FDA-approved antimalaria drug lauded by President Donald Trump—in preventing or reversing symptoms of COVID-19.

In June, initial results showed that the widely-publicized drug was ineffective in preventing COVID-19. In July, it was found unsuccessful in treating early, mild disease. David Boulware, an infectious disease specialist and professor of medicine who led the study, says that although he’s disappointed the drug wasn’t more effective, he’s proud the study provided a “conclusive answer” about hydroxychloroquine.

Other U of M scientists are investigating whether the blood pressure drug losartan can be used toprevent lung injury stemming from COVID-19 and whetherthe Ebola drug remdesivir can help patients who are critically ill.

Additional studies are drawing on the U’s expertise in cell-based therapies, including a new one assessing the safety and effectiveness of natural killer (NK) cell therapy. NK cells, which are part of a normal immune response, protect the body against viral infections. These cells are often depleted in patients with COVID-19. The clinical trial is designed to replenish patients’ own NK cells with off-the-shelf engineered NK cells, restoring patients’ immune systems while equipping the cells to directly target the virus.