UK College of Health Sciences faculty answer the call to fight COVID-19

This article is the first in an ongoing series to highlight UK College of Health Sciences faculty efforts to combat the COVID-19 public health crisis.

Researchers were not immune to COVID-19’s impact as the virus forced labs to rethink and reinvent operations nationwide. UK College of Health Sciences (CHS) faculty pivoted quickly to sustain their current opportunities and joined with investigators around the world to provide solutions in their areas of expertise to fight the pandemic’s effects.

Optimizing outcomes for patients surviving a COVID-19 ICU admission

Kirby Mayer, DPT, PhD, assistant professor of physical therapy, received funding from UK’s Center for Clinical and Translational Science for his COVID-19 research focused on the physical and cognitive-emotional recovery of patients who have survived an Intensive Care Unit (ICU) admission due to a COVID-19 diagnosis. 

With a passion for treating those suffering from critical illnesses and his current research projects on hold, Mayer said that he did not hesitate to join efforts to fight the virus.

His interdisciplinary project, “Optimizing outcomes with physical therapy interventions for individuals surviving an ICU admission for COVID-19” invites recovered COVID-19 patients to participate in eight weeks of physical therapy at a pulmonary rehab center, and receive medical follow-ups at an ICU recovery clinic, to improve their physical function and cognitive and mental health. 

The inspiration for his research began when Mayer determined a majority of patients who are released from the ICU after recovering from pulmonary compromises, acute respiratory failure, or sepsis do not have a specific follow-up plan—unlike one that is commonly practiced on patients who experienced a stroke.

“Some of the data from prior studies highlights less than 20 percent of these patients will receive rehab after surviving the ICU,” he said. “This project has the potential to show patients need rehab after surviving a hospital visit for these critical conditions.”

Reconnecting with former participants to assess health and minimize impact

Despite an inability to connect with participants in a lab setting, CHS investigators Charlotte Peterson, PhD, director of the UK Center for Muscle Biology, and Doug Long, MS, senior research associate in the CHS Office of Research, are reconnecting with an existing cohort of participants from a previous clinical trial to gather information relevant to the pandemic. 

Their 2015 exercise and pharmacological trial tested individuals 65 and up who were interested in increasing their muscle mass and physical functions. Now, in 2020, these individuals are considered high risk for contracting COVID-19.

“We wanted to check in on our participants and see how they were doing in the midst of this crisis,” Peterson said. “Of course, we also wanted to see if they continued to exercise, how their overall health was, if anyone had tested positive for COVID—and if so—assess their recovery.”

Based on a survey developed by the National Institute on Aging, Peterson and Long created a similarly structured phone survey and started making calls to their previous participants.

“Our participants are wonderful individuals who understood the precautions needed to stay safe,” Long said. “But most were more concerned about the health of others, and their family and friends, rather than their own health.”

Peterson said those who choose to participate in research trials are a special group of people who genuinely want to contribute to advancing science for the greater good. By reconnecting with this vulnerable population, she and Long both desire to be resources to their participants while also collecting information that may prove beneficial.

“The more we understand how people are coping with the virus, the more we will contribute to the knowledge base of how we can effectively help and minimize its impact,” Peterson said.

Protecting clinicians and providing care for patients with swallowing disorders

Debra Suiter, PhD, CCC-SLP, director of the UK Voice and Swallow Clinic, collaborated with UK HealthCare’s Mark Fritz, MD, and others to submit a research-based guideline review for dysphagia clinicians intending to minimize the spread of COVID-19 while providing safe care to  patients suffering from swallowing disorders.

The idea and research for the review began during the early stages of COVID-19 closures for outpatient clinics. Suiter said although their clinic was not open for patient care, this did not stop her team’s initiative to answer questions and address circulating concerns from clinicians across the country. 

“All of us diligently worked on developing guidelines to determine how we would function before the closures, and assess re-opening procedures for both the safety of the patient and the clinician,” she said. “We thought our experiences would be impactful and contribute to the outpatient health care community.”

Titled, “Moving Forward with Dysphagia Care: Implementing Strategies during the COVID‑19 Pandemic and Beyond,” the review fulfilled the high demand for more information beyond acute health care and supplied clinicians in ambulatory care settings with safe practice procedures.

After reading through several speech-language pathology forums, Suiter said ambulatory and outpatient care clinicians nationwide have openly expressed fears of virus contraction through performing common diagnostic swallowing procedures. She hopes her team’s guidelines will mitigate fears and provide safe ways to evaluate and treat patients in a timely manner.