NIH Record - National Institutes of Health

Virtual Town Hall Draws Tens of Thousands of Viewers

Dr. Collins opens video conference.
NIH director Dr. Francis Collins addresses the NIH workforce on Mar. 20 during an all-hands virtual town hall meeting. The full talk is archived at videocast.nih.gov.

On the same day NIH announced that most of the Intramural Research Program would be reduced to a maintenance-only operation due to spread of the novel coronavirus, NIH director Dr. Francis Collins led an online virtual town hall meeting that drew more than 23,000 viewers and generated close to 2,000 emailed questions.

The Mar. 20 event in Wilson Hall included 30 minutes of presentations by NIH leadership and an online-interactive Q&A session for the rest of the hour that answered 19 questions.

“We at NIH are doing everything we can to continue to pursue our mission,” said Collins, noting that one of his teleconferences from home had been interrupted by his cat’s sneezing fit. “It’s been a weird week, I grant you.”

Takeaways from the session included:

  • The decision to put the IRP into hibernation for all non-critical functions was made to lower physical proximity, Collins explained. “That’s the most dangerous thing now…We do not want to be vectors ourselves.”
  • The IRP guidance extends to all laboratories, even those outside Bethesda.
  • The requirement to telework for eligible NIH’ers is now extended from Apr. 3 to at least May 1. Supervisors have been asked to use maximum flexibility in managing telework.
  • It has been necessary to cancel the Summer Internship Program for young trainees at NIH for 2020.
  • NIH’ers should be ready to share  information about how to keep safe from coronavirus with their neighbors, Collins suggested.
  • Six NIH’ers had tested positive for COVID-19 disease as of Mar. 20. [There were 54 by Apr. 3.] All have been asked to self-isolate and remain in contact with the Occupational Medical Service, which has added 22 staff to handle screening and calls.
  • The Clinical Center, which began screening all patients and visitors on Mar. 13, has drastically reduced its census of both inpatients and outpatients and has cut its normal social traffic by more than 90 percent.

Asked how long social distancing—though Collins prefers the term physical distancing—will last, Collins said it hurt to send his own lab’s staff home that day.

“I don’t know how long it will last,” he said. “We can’t tell with any precision at this point.” Much wider testing will be available soon, he noted, predicting, “We will probably have 4 to 5 times the number of cases we have now in a few weeks. It will be at least a month before we can tell whether social distancing is working. I have no crystal ball.”

The session had been scheduled to include NIAID director Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has become the nation’s chief medical authority on COVID-19 and has been a ubiquitous presence on the national news. But he was at the White House’s daily press conference, Collins explained. “Even Tony can’t be in two places at once.”

Collins concluded, “It’s been a unique experience to do this virtually—I wish I could see all of you out there…There is no question that this is an unsettling time…But I am quite confident that we will get through this together. There will be stories told about this period in history for decades, maybe even centuries.”

He reminded the audience that NIH also stands for the National Institutes of Hope: “That’s what we are, after all, and I think we should claim that.”

Quoting an editorial in that day’s newspaper that included the observation that “the only thing more contagious than a virus is hope,” he urged, “Be contagious with hope—to your neighbors, to your colleagues and in the mirror, to yourself.”—Rich McManus  

Clinical Center Prepared to Deal with Coronavirus Patients, Gilman Says

View of CRC main entry lobby with white sheets hanging from tall racks used to separate screening areas.
Screening booths for patients and visitors were erected at the entrance to the Clinical Center on Mar. 12. It became mandatory, later in the month, for everyone to be screened.

Photo:  Credit Rich McManus

As cases continue to surge nationwide, the Clinical Center is well equipped to take care of coronavirus patients, said Clinical Center CEO Dr. James Gilman.

“We have the facilities to take care of the patients, but our fundamental mission is research so that’s the backdrop for anything else that happens here,” he said.

Supporting NIH researchers as they work toward bringing treatments and a vaccine from bench to bedside, the Clinical Center is currently one site of a multi-center clinical trial of a potential drug for coronavirus patients. The hospital began accepting such patients on Mar. 24, when two research participants began a randomized, controlled NIAID clinical trial of the antiviral remdesivir. 

In preparation for this eventuality, the CC recently took stock of its quarantine capacity. There are a total of 11 rooms in strict, airborne isolation: 7 in the special clinical studies unit and 4 inpatient rooms. These rooms meet optimum quarantine standards: negative pressure to outside air, HEPA filters and anterooms where staff can safely put on and remove personal protective equipment such as gowns and masks.

“Eleven is the number of patients, in terms of our facilities, that we could take care of the best,” said Gilman, adding that there are additional, negative-pressure rooms that could house patients.

At the local level, the CC, which often collaborates with Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and Suburban Hospital, may expand that relationship to take in some of their coronavirus patients should the need arise during this viral pandemic. An agreement among the three hospitals, drafted after 9/11 and renewed ever since, fosters an even greater exchange in the event of a natural disaster or other national emergency, said Gilman.  

“We have contingency resources for taking care of patients who may have to come to us from Suburban or Walter Reed,” he said.  

The hospital’s leadership has been preparing for this pandemic at a precipitous pace. They engage in multiple meetings daily, making quick decisions and problem-solving as they go along. Gilman likened the pace to that of a critical military operation.

“I’ve been a physician over 40 years, and I’ve been through some pretty interesting times, including a lot of time in the Department of Defense taking care of young men and women [injured in battle], but I’ve never been through anything like this,” he said. “I have a lot of experience with military operations and I would say that the pace here equals that of even the most well-organized military exercises and operations.” 

In addition to preparing for coronavirus patients and protocols, the CC is making significant changes every few days to help protect patients and staff while providing optimal patient care. One such change is updating its visitor policy.

“We’ve begun to tighten the visitor policy significantly, with the idea that we will tighten it even further should we have to,” said Gilman. 

As of mid-March, the CC was limiting each inpatient, even children, to one visitor at a time.

“It cuts down on the number of people we have to screen,” said Gilman, “and helps protect not only our vulnerable patients but also our staff.”

And, since Mar. 13, all patients and visitors entering the CC are screened for symptoms at the door [this policy became mandatory for all entrants to Bldg. 10 later in the month]. Staff who have a fever or other coronavirus symptoms first get screened by the Occupational Medical Service; some then get tested. 

“Our department of laboratory medicine has done a great job of developing the ability to test patients and staff,” said Gilman.  

“We will do whatever the NIH, HHS or national leadership decides,” he concluded. 

The NIH Record

The NIH Record, founded in 1949, is the biweekly newsletter for employees of the National Institutes of Health.

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Assistant Editor: Eric Bock
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Staff Writer: Amber Snyder
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