Rising To The Challenge

Episode 2: Testing, Testing 1, 2, 3 Testing

 
Rising to the Challenge: A podcast by the University of Illinois System

Testing, Testing,1, 2, 3 Testing.

In this episode of Rising to the Challenge, Dr. Marty Burke explains what it took to create a fast, accurate, inexpensive and easy-to-scale Covid test in six weeks: What happened when that test was put to the test when all the students flooded back for the 2020 school year....what went right and what went wrong? Also, moving beyond the walls of the University with the SHIELD Illinois Program. Ron Watkins from UIUC explains plans to help the entire state stay safe. And, how does the health care system test our families experiencing homelessness?  We ride along with Dr. Stockton Mayer and Rebecca Singer from UIC as they bring their mobile testing unit to a population that is most at risk. Then we talked to Anant Naik, a third-year medical student at Carle Illinois College of Medicine in Urbana Champaign, about the children's book he wrote and illustrated called Heroes of the Pandemic: Those who Stood up to COVID 19

 

Rising to the challenge is produced by the University of Illinois System with production support from Illinois Public Media. (The Illinois Public Media newsroom was not involved with this podcast.)

Host: Gwen Macsai

There aren’t many silver linings to COVID-19, but I can think of one big one over the past six, eight months, scientists all over the globe have been pooling their data and working on the exact same problem at the exact same time. Think of the brain power devoted to the eradication of this virus.

And yet the virus is a wily shapeshifter defined treatment, mutating and keeping us all on our toes. But what’s the one thing that we know can cut off Covitz long and toxic tentacles that have reached into every corner of the globe testing, testing, testing, testing.

But, in some places it’s still so hard to get a test. Long lines, questionnaires, the dreaded nasal swab that roto routers your sinuses and up to a week’s wait for results. It’s not testing, it’s torture, but not at U of I. Within six weeks of being asked U of I scientists got a fast, simple, accurate, inexpensive saliva test up and running six weeks. Now they can test 20,000 people a day.

They didn’t break the mold. They annihilated it. And that’s not even the half of it. Teams of scientists, business experts and logistics wizards are working furiously to make the saliva test available to the rest of the state and the rest of the country.

Today on rising to the challenge, how the University of Illinois is showing the rest of the world, how it’s done. Who knew your salivaries could be so salutary? I’m Gwen Macsai, stay with us.

NEWS MONTAGE:
(various voices)
The mystery virus started here in the city of Wu Han. Chinese authorities pinpointing its source to this food market. Those infected are being treated in medical centers, suffering symptoms, similar to pneumonia.

We’re deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity. And by the alarming levels of inaction, we have their format, the assessment that COVID-19 can be characterized as a pandemic.

I think Americans should be prepared that they’re going to have to hunker down significantly more than we as a country are doing.

Right now we turn to alarming numbers in the coronavirus pandemic. Those numbers have set t records…..

Rising number of cases and hospitalizations in many areas are still mounting…..

Coronavirus cases continue to climb. Separately, the CDC says it’s possible that the number of infections in the U S could be 10 times higher than the confirmed case count….
The governor has been preaching the importance of mask usage for months, but that message is gaining urgency as the number of cases across the state continues to rise because of what was described today as people’s complacency…..

This is a make or break moment for Illinois.

HOST: Gwen Macsai
I want to tell you about a feat of accomplishment. This feat required thousands of man hours, groundbreaking discoveries, Epic organization, a logistical quagmire, and radical thinking all while the clock was tick, tick, ticking away.

It all ended with a fast, accurate, inexpensive COVID-19 test that was discovered and scaled up to the tune of 20,000 tests a day. It all started with a half teaspoon of saliva, a rack held together with binder clips and a tiger at the Bronx zoo. But let’s start at the beginning. Shall we?

Meet our leading man in the story, Martin Burke. We met Marty Burke on the first day of classes, when there was an air of excitement about starting the new school year. The scientists and administrators knew even then that their approach to COVID testing and containment would have to be flexible and follow the data as the academic year got underway.

That proved to be true. And we’ll talk about that in a few minutes, but first things first.  Now, Marty Burke is a lot of things. He’s a professor of chemistry at the university of Illinois. He’s the May and Ving Lee Professor for Chemical Innovation. He’s an MD PhD—from Harvard no less—but mostly he’s just a really nice guy whose enthusiasm for his work is absolutely infectious.

With the literal spring in his step, he bounces around campus, smiling, happy to help wherever he’s needed. And around here, he is needed a lot. We certainly needed him to explain how this whole super fast saliva testing Nova got off the ground. And to do that, my producer, Libby and I met Marty Burke at one of the 20 testing sites, big white tents all over the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign campus.

Martin Burke:
So the design was with the tents, obviously have it very open to the air, uh, also make them convenient so people could just literally on their way to class, just stop off, submit their saliva and keep going. Uh, also from a safety perspective, it keeps it open, everything’s better outside.

Host: Gwen Macsai
Every student, staff and faculty member is assigned two days a week that they must test. We followed Robin Kaler from the Public Affairs department through the process.

Anonymous:
Hello, how’re you doing today, ma’am?


Robin Kaler:
I’m well, how are you today?

Annonymous
I’m great. Have you had anything to eat, drink, smoke, or chew in the last hour?

Robin Kaler: No, ma’am.

Anonymous: Okay. Do you have your university card with you? So if you can swipe that for me, barcode facing you please….beep….perfect….. 

Host: Gwen Macsai
After a quick ID check, a label is then stuck onto a plastic vial and Robin takes it to a specially marked spot where she quietly dribbles saliva to the vial. Just half a teaspoon. Then she screws the top onto the vial and places it in a rack, no swabs, no re-agents, no pouring things in, taking things out, not even capping and uncapping. Which is one reason the test results come back so quickly.

Martin Burke:
The beauty is as soon as all that gets filled, a golf cart will drive that over to the veterinary diagnostic lab. And then the entire rack actually goes into a hot water bath that inactivates the virus, so thereby protecting the workers in the lab, but also it cracks the virus open and exposes its RNA. And that allows us to skip all the supply chain bottlenecks that were a problem for the other tests. And now you don’t need……

Host: Gwen Macsai
I know what you’re thinking: The veterinary diagnostic lab? Patience grasshopper, we’ll get to that in a second.

Also just a side note here, the rack that holds the test tube samples had to be specially designed to fit directly into the PCR machine that detects the virus. Enter the world renown engineering school that solved the problem overnight by taking commercial racks and putting them together with binder clips.

Sometimes the MacGyver way is the best way.

The whole endeavor started back in March when colleges and universities all over the country closed their doors, sent students home and went online. That’s when Marty Burke was asked to help lead a team to find the fastest, safest way to open back up in August, which was only five short months away. Tall order, but the school threw everything they had at it.

Martin Burke: From the beginning, they told us, just get it done and empowered us with resources from every angle, you know, human resources, financial resource, space, pretty much everything we asked for. We were, uh, you know, it was made available to us, uh, and it was just been a tremendous team effort.

Host: Gwen Macsai
And he’s not kidding.
Seven task forces were formed. Hundreds of people contributed. And the thing about Marty Burke is that he wants to tell you about every single one of them.

Martin Burke:
So Craig Wagenknecht, who is in the vice chancellor’s office, uh, was just amazing in terms of the logistics….

Host: Gwen Macsai
Really he’s like the quarterback everybody wants on their team…..

Martin Burke:
So Tim fan, who is a professor in veterinary medicine led this charge and it was kind of his….

Host: Gwen Macsai
Because even when he throws the touchdown pass and wins the game, he credits everyone else, by name.

Martin Burke: Robin Holland, who is the extraordinary, uh, individual who really helped to get the……

Host: Gwen Macsai
He’s still going….

Martin Burke:
Dean Rashid Bashir has just been amazing. I mean, every, every time we had to ask for something, somebody jumps in and helps us…..

Host: Gwen Macsai
Back to our story. We left off when the University of Illinois chemistry department led by Paul Hergenrother had devised an ingenious, easy saliva COVID test. Check! But to be fast and inexpensive, you have to have a diagnostic lab onsite. That’s where the tiger comes in. I told you it would. Again, Marty Burke.

Martin Burke:
This is a great story. So you may have heard back in February, there was a tiger at the Bronx zoo that was diagnosed with COVID-19. That happened here. So the sample was sent from New York to the veterinary diagnostic lab and Leyi Wang, who is one of the faculty members here who is a world leader in animal coronaviruses. So he developed a COVID test for tigers and actually diagnosed the tiger at the Bronx zoo. And so then when we realized we were going to need to build our own testing facility and we looked at lots of different options, and one of the ones that rose to the top very quickly was, you know, could we convert our veterinary diagnostic lab into a human COVID-19 testing facility?

Host: Gwen Macsai
And the answer was yes, they could. And yes they did.

At this stage, they have the test and the lab, but they also needed to set up testing sites all over campus, 20 sites. So the events team, the people that plan graduations and all the other big events took over logistics. Check! But they also needed massive amount of data to be collected and modeled. That’s where the computer guys come in. Check! But they also needed an app to keep track of all the test results and health information, enter the IT people. And you can’t get into any building on campus without showing your app to a wellness support associate, who’s kind of like a student bouncer. So you need lots of those. Done and done.

Are you exhausted yet? Cause I am andI’m only telling the story, but Marty Burke, not surprisingly is brimming with energy.

Martin Burke:
We were at about 1.5% in early July in terms of our positivity rate and now simply by that point, voluntarily people coming and getting tested frequently over the summer, we watched it fall from 1.5. to drop below 0.2%. We were able to almost eliminate Corona virus from UIUC campus.

Host: Gwen Macsai
But don’t mistake Marty Burke’s enthusiasm for naiveté. That it isn’t.

Martin Burke:
And so we’ve been modeling this very closely. We know there’s going to be a bump when the students return. This isn’t a surprise, this isn’t a crisis, it’s just math.

But our modeling also predicts that if we test them fast and frequently, twice per week, which is now what the modeling ended up telling us that we had to do, it should come back down again. And so that’s what we’re really hopeful for. And we’re all locking arms. And you know, the next two to three weeks are going to be absolutely critical. Everyone has to do their part. But if we do that and we can keep the testing going, the modeling tells us we’re going to get it right back down.

Host: Gwen Macsai
Pretty much everyone we spoke to felt that if the University of Illinois can’t do it, no one can. And there’s no question that even if the numbers come back down and stay down, the work is far from over. The university doesn’t just want to keep its doors open, although that is the number one priority. It had plans in place all along to replicate all of its work to help the rest of Champagne, the rest of Illinois and the rest of the country. More on that coming up. These are no small plans. Already, they’re rolling out a mobile testing unit, which is basically a lab on a truck that can test 10,000 people a day, wherever it goes.

They also have plans for popup testing, where it’s needed with more projects in the hopper.

Martin Burke:
So we’d like to say this is 2020, not 1918. I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to go on offense. Enough of this. And so by pulling everybody together, we kind of, I think had a collective feeling that let’s go on offense, let’s find a way to innovate our way out of this mess and hopefully help the world along the way.

Host: Gwen Macsai
That was three weeks ago. Since then there’ve been a few problems, a few adjustments, and so far a happy ending.

The university made one big assumption that fueled all their modeling data. They predicted that when the students came back, 7- 8,000 undergrads would go to parties three times a week without masks. They’re young. They like to go out. The University gets that. But what they didn’t foresee was a small group of students who, even after testing positive for the Corona virus, also went to parties, even hosted them. And that led to a higher infection rate than they expected. It rose to almost 3%, which was a little startling and completely unacceptable. But if Marty Burke has one motto, it’s this:

Martin Burke
You know, we’ve always been fast, but we always want to be faster.

Host: Gwen Macsai
And everything about getting the infection rate down has to do with data and speed. Speed of testing, speed of results, speed of notification. So this is what the university did: they figured out that 95 to 98% of the covid cases were among the undergrads, which meant that they could test the faculty less—going down to one time per week—and the high risk students, those living in frats or dorms where there were breakouts, more often, up to three times a week. Another adjustment they made…

Martin Burke:
We created a priority rack system. So when people come into our tent, as you hand in your vial, Or your, your tube, they’ll ask you, you know, do you have any symptoms? Did you have a recent exposure or do you have any reason to think you might be, you know, higher risk for COVID? And if your answer is yes, you get your, you put yours into a special high priority rack, and of course we can then test those right, really fast.


Host: Gwen Macsai
And lastly, after they detect a positive test result, they have a notification team who alerts the positive person within—get this—30 minutes when Marty said they were fast. He wasn’t kidding.

Martin Burke:
And I’m very excited to tell you that it worked. Okay. So now our last seven day positivity rate is back down to 0.52% and over the last two days, we’ve only had 10 and 17 cases per day.

Host: Gwen Macsai
Also exciting…..

Martin Burke:
We never closed classes. Our mission, right, is to educate our students. And we’re really proud that we did not have to shut down in-person instruction. I’ll tell you the most heartening thing is the people who were most upset was the overwhelming majority of students who don’t want to go back to their parents’ basement and try to learn on a computer. I mean, this is like, they stood up and said, you know, knock it off. Right? Like we all want to stay here. And so very positive peer pressure, I think became the driver.

Host: Gwen Macsai
There were a few suspensions as well. Nevertheless. The indomitable, Marty Burke is even more optimistic now than when we talked to him three weeks ago, if that’s even possible.

Martin Burke:
So I’m saying we’re feeling very hopeful at this point. And I think the couple of key messages, you won’t be surprised the students have to continue to do their part. We’ve seen what will happen if they don’t. And so I think as strong as we can possibly send a message, we need to say, let’s go continue to work together and we view this as a partnership, you know, we know they’re going to want to socialize, of course, right? We’re not Pollyannaish about this. We understand that. It’s just a matter of helping them learn how to do that safely. So now we’re entering a new phase. We’re going to lock arms, do things differently together. And I am very, very hopeful that we’re going to be here November 20th.

Host: Gwen Macsai
Dr. Martin Burke official task force leader, unofficial COBIT testing ambassador and professor of chemistry at the University of Illinois Urbana Champagn.

The COVID testing and tracking program that we just talked about, that the university of Illinois developed is called the SHIELD program. It’s designed to keep the school and the greater Champagne community safe. Now the program has not only expanded to the University of Illinois, Chicago and the University of Illinois Springfield, but they have a plan to bring this technology and organization out to the entire state. No easy task.

It’s almost like a military deployment, it has so many moving parts. Good thing. Ron Watkins is a former army captain. He’s also the Associate Dean for Strategic Innovation at the U of I Geis College of Business. His job is to deploy the COVID test statewide and make it as accessible as possible.

Ron Watkins:
And so accessibility is being able to get the costs down as best we can, and to be able to develop the capacity, the lab capabilities that are needed to do the testing.

Host: Gwen Macsai
First, he had to consider the differences in where and how the test will be used. U of I is an enclosed environment with the testing, lab, data flow and the results all just ricocheting around the campus borders. Maybe 50,000 people using the testing protocol in one County. Illinois has 12.6 million people over 102 counties.

Ron Watkins:
It’s just a completely different environment and beast to work with.

Host: Gwen Macsai
It’s a big challenge with four essential hurdles to get over, according to Watkins.

Ron Watkins:
The supply chain, the technology, the lab builds and the logistics piece. It’s, it’s really, how can we go faster? Because each week there is substantial impact. So when I see the coronavirus numbers come out, when I see the, whether it’s number of cases, the loss of life, or the fact that we’re unable to open an economy fully. You know, what keeps me up at night is, is really trying to figure out how do we do this quicker? How do we put a model in place? How do we get what we need at, at, at, at faster speeds.

Host: Gwen Macsai
Right now, Watkins thinks that realistically they’re 12 to 16 weeks out. To be clear, SHIELD   Illinois partners with sponsors who can help pay for the tests, community partners, like employers and other universities that can help collect samples, and lab partners—like schools of medicine—that have the space for a lab and the staff for it.

Watkins coordinates plans, budgets, and lines, everything up for someone else to use.

Ron Watkins:
I think of it almost like we’ve got this wonderful recipe and this wonderful process. And so we’re bringing that and the ingredients they need, the kitchen equipment they need. The supply chain, they need, the technology they need, now we need them to actually cook it.

 

Host: Gwen Macsai
And the need hardly stops at the Illinois border. But U of I has already thought that through with yet another initiative, SHIELD T3, which is ramping up to bring all this technology to all 50 States. But that is a story for another day.

 

Host: Gwen Macsai
I’m already waiting on the sidewalk when Rebecca singer pulls to the curb and parks her car.

Rebecca Singer:
The last time we were here my car got towed….

Host: Gwen Macsai
We’re both masked, ready to roll and compulsively early. Her Toyota Matrix is loaded down with three plastic bins the size of coffee tables. We hoist them out of the car and roll them toward a transitional housing shelter for families experiencing homelessness. Inside the bins is everything she needs to set up a mobile COVID-19 testing site.

The shelter is so unobtrusive and anonymous, it’s hard to find. The address shows nothing but boarded up windows. But around the corner, we find a grated door and behind that, a clean, bright, welcoming space that looks like a converted apartment. Once introductions are made, Rebecca and a group of four or five nursing students start setting up their workspace.

Rebecca Singer:
Okay. Do you have any folding chairs at all? If you, that would be fabulous. If we could have four folding chairs….

Host: Gwen Macsai
They open a folding table, wipe it down, figure out where people will sit, where children may be most comfortable and where they will administer the tests.

Rebecca Singer:
A typical day is organized chaos.

Nurse:
Anyone want a face sheet? Yeah.

Rebecca Singer:
We come with our PPE or personal protective equipment. So gloves, gowns, masks, face shields, and then all the testing equipment plus all the cleaning supplies that we would need to clean before and after testing.


Host: Gwen Macsai
This is the COVID rapid response team. It’s a collaboration between Rush Hospital, the Chicago Department of Public Health and the University of Illinois, Chicago. The dynamic duo that had the effort are project lead Dr. Stockton Mayer, specialist in infectious disease at UIC and Rebecca singer, who’s a Clinical Assistant Professor in the Department of Population Health Nursing Science at UIC. Today, they’re joined by nursing students, but other times they work alongside a rotating group of pharmacy and medical students as well.

Rebecca Singer:
How’s everyone doing today? End of the week, two weeks down in the semester, thirteen more to go….

Host: Gwen Macsai
When the city of Chicago identifies an outbreak among people experiencing homelessness, this team dispatches to the shelter or encampment in question, but the testing is completely voluntary. I spoke with Rebecca Singer and Stockton Mayer in early September.
She is a fast moving bundle of energy with a shock of dark curly hair, and he, with his lanky build,  blue scrubs and surgical mask, bore a striking resemblance to Anthony Edwards from ER. They had been sent to the West side of Chicago. Here’s Rebecca singer.

Rebecca Singer:
And then in terms of the history of the outbreak at this site, there was a resident that was diagnosed with COVID and then in the organization, there was a staff member who was, who had some level of contact with various, both staff and residents at both sites, which is why we’re testing both sites. We’ll see how it goes. Any questions?

Host: Gwen Macsai
Project lead, Dr. Stockton Mayer says that even though they come here to help the families and staff, it also works both ways.

Stockton Mayer:
I am constantly impressed by some of the staff at the facilities and the resilience of the residents. The staff, because as I mentioned, they don’t have any medical training and they were dealing with a medical crisis. You know, when a lot of them wanted to just not come in, they,they did. They realized that they needed to take care of folks. And that I think will always be one of the most lasting messages from this, from this project, just really seeing the community stand up, the bravery, the fearlessness, and really kind of confronting this. And it was, you know, an inspired me, you know, on a daily basis. And it was just incredibly touching.

Rebecca Singer:
Gwen, this is Naomi…

 


Naomi:
Okay, nice to meet you.

Rebecca Singer:
We do the very deep, you know, brain touching swab, as people say, you gonna touch my brain?  I’m like, no, no, no. the back of your throat. And then afterwards. So like that was my brain, you know, not exactly but, sure. For me, I think it really symbolizes the loss of control and the loss of freedom that we’ve all felt during this time. And so the test is what sort of stands out, I think, as a real trigger for people. And so we always have that at front of mind when we’re talking to people and when we’re testing people so that we can try to ease that anxiety for them.

Nurse:
And then your date of birth?

Resident:
3/22/1972.

Nurse:
Have you been experiencing any new symptoms?

Resident:
No.

Nurse:
New symptoms include: fever, chills, muscle aches….

Stockton Mayer:
In a pandemic, the good relationships thrive and the bad relationships really don’t thrive. It really brings out the best and sometimes the worst in us. And it’s been the same with our testing team. Everybody is on a first name basis. Everyone is really there to help the community, and that is priority number one. And everyone realizes that. We have hard long days sometimes, but we just enjoy being around each other and working with one another. And we don’t really think about it. We’re just kind of worried about getting the job done.

Nurse:
Perfect. So today we’re going to do the oral and the nasal. We’re going to just swab the back of your throat lightly and then we’ll…..

Rebecca Singer:
Everyone is scared. It’s scary right now. And to have those moments of connection where, you know, you share a laugh or you get through a hard moment or in a time when we’re not allowed to touch each other and you put a hand on someone’s shoulder or hold their hand while you’re testing them, it’s really powerful, I think for, for them and definitely for me.
Nurse:
Take a deep breath in on three, one, two, three, and I’m going to enter just like that. Okay. And I’ll breathe with you. Okay. Ready? One, two, three, in, and release. One more time in…..

Stockton Mayer:
In a lot of ways, it emphasizes the connectedness between all of us, uh, a transmissible disease doesn’t really judge one person from the other and a level of care and needs to exist broadly across the population to keep everybody well.

Host: Gwen Macsai
After the swabs are taken the tests take about a day or two to process. Then a nurse from the city delivers the results. People with positive results can be moved to A Safe Haven, a COVID-positive shelter with 24-hour nursing care provided by Rush Hospital, or if it’s possible for them to isolate at their shelter in individual rooms, they can stay put.

Nurse::
You got it? That was the quickest we ever did that.

Host: Gwen Macsai
Not long after all of the clipboards gloves, face, shields and swabs are pulled out and set up everything is gathered back up, packed into the big plastic bins and rolled out to Rebecca’s car. It was a quick turnaround because in the end, on the day that I was with the COVID rapid response team, only one person decided to test, which shines a bright light on one of the biggest problems healthcare workers face when it comes to testing for outbreaks of any virus, be it COVID, Ebola, SARS, or MERS, and that is patient fear. Fear that the test is painful, fear that the test will give them the virus, fear that their DNA is being stolen and even fears that a microchip is being implanted into the patient during the test. And these fears are widespread. Standing outside the Chicago center for transitional housing, Stockton Mayer and Rebecca Singer express their frustration.

Rebecca Singer:
It just points to the long term structures and the way that the health system has failed our most at risk communities and the communities of color. And like, so now we have a real crisis that is disproportionately impacting them and we don’t have any credit as a health system.

Stockton Mayer:
Right.

Rebecca Singer:
In order to actually do the right thing by these communities.

Stockton Mayer:
Right.

Rebecca Singer:
And that makes fighting a pandemic really challenging.

Stockton Mayer:
I mean you heard the same stories when, when, when Ebola was, was a big issue in Western Africa.  A lot of… when people would come in to try and do infection control measures, there was a lot of like, oh, well you actually coming here to give me the virus. It’s the same thing here, you know? And we think that, hey, this isn’t going to happen in the United States, but we do, we see it, you know, every single day, and this is just a, a great example of it.

Host: Gwen Macsai
But regardless of whether one person tests or a hundred people test, Rebecca Singer and Stockton Mayer will be rolling out their bins somewhere else next week, wiping down surfaces, donning and doffing their PPE, swabbing, reassuring, and then packing it all up to do it again. And again.  And again.

 

 

Host: Gwen Macsai
While some UIC medical students may be rotating through the COVID rapid response team with Dr. Stockton Mayer and Rebecca Singer, others like third-year student at the Carle Illinois College of Medicine have different ways to contribute during the pandemic. For him, it all started with doodles.

Anant Naik:
I’m a frequent doodler. I like to doodle stuff. I’ve, uh, I have a tablet, so I I’m always trying to make art and illustrations and stuff. So I started just experimenting with this idea of writing a small poem with some illustrations, nothing like significant. It wasn’t, I wasn’t planning on making it into a book at the time, but eventually the idea grew bigger and, uh, I ended up writing parts of the poem to make it like a full book size, uh, piece, and then added a lot more illustrations to eventually publish it on my own.

Host: Gwen Macsai
The book is called Heroes of a Pandemic: Those Who Stood up to COVID-19.

Anant Naik:
When I was writing this story poem, a lot of the news that wasn’t directed to explaining to kids, you know, what’s going on and I tried to create the poem in an easy to understand way, a way for parents, as they’re reading their kids this story, to have a discussion about what is going on and have that conversation as a family.


Anant Naik:
“In a rural town of the far East, there was a market with live animals and meat. This was also a teeny tiny pathogen’s home whose true power was yet unknown. The virus now settled in the mouth and lungs duplicating itself and soon there were guns. Now it had spread to the rest of the world. Borders shuttered, economies unfurled.

Zia Valdez:
“It was too like the virus already had its way and vulnerable people began to suffer night and day. But some brave people decided that the virus had had enough. Doctors, nurses, and scientists were far from giving up. Health officials, world leaders, police officers, work side by side to encourage citizens to wash their hands and stay inside.”

Host: Gwen Macsai:
The illustrations in some places are light and airy and in others, dark and moody. And that is by design.

Anant Naik:
This virus has really dramatically affected the way we live our life and it’s quite literally stolen some of the light in our life, sending us inside, you know, making us feel alone. So I tried to, in some ways to pick that with the illustrations and you know, and in some of illustrations, it goes from a kind of a darker out, outside to a brighter interior where it’s the people that I’m trying to highlight and those are brighter because those are the heroes trying to bring back the light into the environment that we’re in.


Zia Valdez:
“The war with this virus was fought not with guns and tanks. People die from an invisible enemy, not armies or gangs. The world recognized the glue that bound society tighter. These were the truckers, taxi drivers, grocery store employees and firefighters.

Anant and Zia
Our true Superheroes save the day. And then this virus, once again returned,....

Anant Naik
...we know they could quickly send it away.

Host: Gwen Macsai:
That was third year medical student at Carle Illinois College of Medicine in Urbana Champagn, reading Heroes of the Pandemic: Those Who Stood up to COVID-19, a book he wrote and illustrated. Sales of the book have raised $3,000 for Doctors Without Borders. We also heard excerpts read by Zia Valdez, age 11.

Rising to the Challenge was produced and engineered by Libby Foster with editing help from Cheyna Roth. Special thanks to Tim Kileen, Moss Bresnahan, Lillie Duncanson, Laura Clower, Robin Kaler, Kirsten Ruby, David Mercer and Tom Hardy. Rising to the Challenge is a production of the University of Illinois system and Illinois Public Media.

I’m Gwen Macsai. Thanks for listening.