Health and Medicine

UNC School of Medicine awarded $3 Million for emerging pathogen preparedness and training

UNC Institute for Global Health and Infectious Diseases and critical care experts Dr. William Fischer Dr. David Wohl, in collaboration with UNC Hospitals colleagues, will lead a Regional Emerging Special Pathogen Treatment Center funded through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Strategic Preparedness and Response.

A white doctor coat with UNC School of Medicine on it.
(Johnny Andrews/UNC-Chapel Hill)

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and UNC Hospitals has been selected to be a Regional Emerging Special Pathogen Treatment Center (RESPTC) by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Strategic Preparedness and Response (ASPR). UNC-Chapel Hill was one of three sites selected to expand beyond 10 existing RESPTC sites across the US.

UNC School of Medicine’s Dr. William Fischer and Dr. David Wohl both members of the UNC Institute for Global Health and Infectious Diseases, will lead the new center, established through a $3-million ASPR grant. The other two new centers will be established at Washington Hospital Center in Washington, D.C. and Spectrum Health System in Grand Rapids Michigan. The ASPR also awarded $1.2 million to each of the original 10 RESPTCs for a total investment of $21 million.

For several years, UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill has been one of eight North Carolina healthcare facilities designated as an assessment hospital to identify, isolate, and care for a patient infected with an emerging pathogen for up to 96 hours before transfer to a RESPTC. Now UNC will join Emory University as the only two RESPTCs in the Southeast.

These awards will bolster the country’s preparedness and capacity to respond to emerging pathogens during medical and public health emergencies. At UNC Hospitals, the grant will allow experts in critical care, infectious diseases and infection control to train and educate staff at UNC Hospitals, other hospitals, and clinics in urban areas and rural communities across the Southeast.

Fischer and Wohl, both of whom have directly provided care to patients with special pathogens such as Ebola, Lassa fever, COVID-19, and human monkeypox here and abroad, will lead implementation of plans and protocols to quickly establish a special intensive care unit with capacity to care for two patients with special pathogens. Their plans will also account for expanding hospital capabilities should the need arise.

“UNC Hospitals has been at the forefront of caring for infectious diseases patients for decades, starting with the HIV epidemic in the 1980s,” said Wohl, professor of infectious diseases in the department of medicine. “This award is a recognition of our ability to train clinical staff and care for people with new or concerning infections. There will be no better place to receive this special care than at UNC Hospitals.”

Fischer and Wohl are collaborating with UNC Hospitals and campus leadership, the medical intensive care unit, as well as several infection prevention experts at UNC Hospitals, including Emily Sickbert-Bennett, Brooke Brewer, Dr. David Weber and their entire teams.

“Over the past two decades, we have witnessed a rise in the number of emerging and re-emerging infectious disease outbreaks. This award is an important opportunity to strengthen local, regional and national preparedness, response and recovery,” said Fischer, director of the Emerging Pathogens Program at the UNC Institute for Global Health and Infectious Diseases and associate professor of pulmonary diseases and critical care medicine. “This has been a total team effort, including support from each state in our region, local public health officials, and emergency medical professionals.”

Wohl noted that North Carolina has a large military presence often stationed overseas and a citizenry dedicated to missionary and nonprofit work abroad, where new pathogens have historically emerged.

“UNC-Chapel Hill is perfectly situated to take on this responsibility,” said Dr. Myron Cohen, founding director of the UNC Institute for Global Health and Infectious Diseases, the Yeargan-Bate Professor of Medicine, Microbiology and Epidemiology, and associate vice chancellor for medical affairs. “Our long history and dedication to treating special pathogen patients in Africa, around the world, and at home, as well as our strong partnerships with North Carolina public health leaders, has prepared us to handle whatever might come our way.”

UNC-Chapel Hill is ranked 19th worldwide in the “Best University in Infectious Diseases” rankings by US News & World Report. Carolina, the only university in North Carolina ranked in the top 30 globally, is ranked 7thamong U.S. institutions.

“Drs. Fischer and Wohl are internationally respected and extraordinary clinicians and researchers who have proven their expertise in this field,” said UNC Hospitals President Janet Hadar. “We are thankful for their leadership, for the dedication of their colleagues and our hospital staff, and for local and state support, which greatly aided our grant application.”

In announcing the $21-million investment, HHS said the RESPTCs are hospitals with enhanced capability and capacity to care for highly infectious diseases and serve as regional hubs for the National Special Pathogen System. These hospitals are continuously ready and available to care for a special pathogen patient medically evacuated from overseas or diagnosed within the United States.

These are the 13 RESPTCs:

  • Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts
  • New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation/HHC Bellevue Hospital Center in New York, New York
  • Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland
  • Washington Hospital Center in Washington, D.C.
  • Emory University Hospital and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta/Egleston Children’s Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia
  • UNC-Chapel Hill and UNC Hospitals, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina
  • University of Minnesota Medical Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota
  • Spectrum Health System in Grand Rapids, Michigan
  • University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston in Galveston, Texas
  • Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska
  • Denver Health & Hospital Authority in Denver, Colorado
  • Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, California
  • Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center and Children’s Hospital in Spokane, Washington