UAB President: ‘We used our people power’ to get through pandemic

Updated: May. 21, 2021 at 2:21 PM CDT
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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WBRC) – UAB Hospital admitted its first COVID-19 patient on March 19, 2020. The day before, UAB cancelled in-person and on-campus classes for the rest of the spring semester, and three days before that, UAB transitioned to remote working for most employees.

“We knew once we studied the data in early 2020 that we had a tsunami coming from this virus,” said Dr. Ray Watts, President, UAB.

Preparing for the first wave to crash, Dr. Watts said he called on UAB’s team of infectious disease and public health experts to help guide the way through a worst pandemic in a century.

“We didn’t know the answers and people were dying. I mean we’ve lost 570,000 Americans, and over 11,000 Alabamians, and so this was something, a crisis like we’ve never faced.”

He added, “But we rolled our sleeves up, we used our brains and our minds and our people power and we figured it out.”

There were persistent supply challenges early on, from testing to personal protective equipment (PPE).

“Big cities were getting the resources,” said Dr. Watts. So UAB developed its own COVID-19 test and found a way to sanitize and reuse PPE.

“Our doctors developed the test in our laboratories from scratch,” explained Dr. Watts. The same scientists developed a method for analyzing several samples at once, making it possible to test every college student in the state for COVID-19.

“About 300,000.”

From testing to tracing, UAB developed the GuideSafe Exposure Notification app, which is now on one out five smartphones in Alabama.

“Hundreds of thousands, across Alabama and across the country, and again that was the ingenuity of our faculty,” said Dr. Watts.

He said advances in technology were met by innovation in medicine. UAB researchers were part of dozens of clinical trials, developing treatment and testing possible vaccines for COVID-19.

“The thing that stands out to me is what stands out to all of our employees and that is how mission focused we are. We know we play a very important role in serving our community,” said Dr. Watts. “The mission focus has allowed us to achieve and go over many hurdles that were necessary because we knew how critical it is for the safety, and life and welfare of all of our people.”

And, UAB employees did more while making less money.

“I think the hardest decision was facing the financial impact early, and in April and May, we shut down most of our clinical operations, and had most of our employees at home, and had to pivot to remote education, so those decisions, and then some of the financial consequences we had to make.”

He added, “We took pay cuts, we had to make some furloughs, we took cuts in benefits, we didn’t travel, we all cut everything as much as possible to be able to deal with the financial consequence.”

A year later, those cuts have been restored and Dr. Watts said it’s “full-bore ahead.”

“We want to do research that cures cancer and Alzheimer’s as well as COVID, and we want to provide world class healthcare for the people of our state. And we want to have the biggest impact on our community.”

READ: UAB named America’s No. 1 Best Large Employer 2021 by Forbes

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