COVID-19 Research Spotlights
In May 2020, the North Carolina General Assembly (NCGA) appropriated $29 million to the NC Policy Collaboratory to study COVID-19. The research incorporated a range of topics such as vaccines/treatments, economic effects of the pandemic, mental health trends and racial disparities in community health. To highlight the interdisciplinary nature of the COVID-19 projects, the Collaboratory published a series of research spotlights in Fall 2020, which are displayed below.
- Can you explain problem that your research is addressing?
- Hospitals face difficult choices as they prepare for the huge surge in new patients coming as a result of an infectious disease outbreak such as COVID. Many of these health care facilities responded to the first surge of COVID patients by shutting down all elective and non-emergency procedures, a prudent move, but masks and social distancing reduced the surge below worst case expectations. The result was a lot of unused hospital capacity and substantial reductions in hospital revenues. These losses were estimated to be as much as $1 billion per month in North Carolina alone.
- Can you describe the goal of your research project?
- We are building predictive models with the intent of being able to give hospitals better estimates of the number of patients they can expect to enter the hospital and what equipment they will need (e.g. ICU bed, ventilator) as much as one to two weeks in advance. This will allow them to better calibrate the amount of capacity they will need to treat COVID patients while also allowing them to continue to service other patients via important, but non-emergency, procedures. This will allow them to protect public health and remain economically sustainable during these types of infectious disease outbreaks.
- Can you explain the goal of your research and how the project is structured?
- COVID-19 is affecting the health of communities large and small across North Carolina, and we are interested in understanding how the pandemic is impacting people’s travel in the state. Our goal is to research the interrelationships between public health policies, executive actions, mobility changes, traffic safety, and the transmission and impacts of COVID-19 to inform policy decisions and decision makers in North Carolina. This project is led by the UNC Highway Safety Research Center and brings together a team of multidisciplinary research partners from across the UNC System, including UNC-CH’s Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research, Gillings School of Global Public Health, Odum Institute for Research in Social Science, and the NC State University Department of Statistics.
- Can you summarize some of the main points from your Technical Briefs?
- Our Technical Brief from September provided initial findings related to mobility and health trends in the state due to the pandemic. For mobility trends, we found a significant reduction in vehicle travel in North Carolina following the March 10, 2020, State of Emergency Declaration. Rural vehicle travel decreased by 62% compared with urban travel, which decreased by 46%. We also found significant decrease in works trips overall with the largest drop in urban areas. We attribute these differences to the higher likelihood of people in rural areas being essential workers, as well as lacking broadband access, thus cannot work remotely and were not able to reduce their travel as much. We now have another Technical Brief (November 6, 2020) which outlines research to assess potential safety implications of recent legislation introduced or passed in North Carolina to relax licensing requirements currently in place for new teenage drivers. The closure of schools and the statewide stay-at-home order clearly had a substantial effect on young drivers in North Carolina. New permits and licenses dropped off sharply beginning March 2020. Crashes involving young drivers also decreased, likely reflecting fewer trips by young drivers since
schools and other activities were cancelled.
This project will study focus groups of young adults and practitioners in the justice system to understand how a shift to community-based interventions during the pandemic has affected the youth.
- Can you describe the focus of your research project?
- Dr. Beneby: “Most offenders, particularly in the age group that we’re interested in, between ages 18-25, we know that the system tends to dispose of their cases by adjudicating them and giving them some type of institutional disposition — so for instance: facilities, institutions and secure facilities. However, the COVID pandemic has resulted in many of the traditional criminal justice responses sending the offenders to community-based programs.”
Dr. Glenn: “We’re trying to learn these lessons. Even after this pandemic wanes and it’s something that we can just think back on, what are the things that we need to be trying to implement on a more long-term basis?”
- What are community-based interventions?
- Dr. Beneby: “We know that incarceration, as a counter disposition to community-based alternatives, really does break up those types of social ties and the familial relationships that offenders have. So when we talk about community-based interventions, we’re talking about any type of intervention that not only allows those relationships to remain intact, but it also uses those relationships as a source of support for those offenders who are trying to turn around their lives.”
This project will conduct a health assessment of African Americans living in rural and urban areas throughout North Carolina. Dr. Smith started recruiting participants in August and is aiming to survey a total of 100 individuals. She will begin analyzing the data once she has surveyed the participants again in January.
- Can you summarize your project and preliminary findings?
- This project aims to assess “real-time” impacts of COVID-19 within African American households residing in rural and urban North Carolina communities. I am particularly interested in understanding how COVID-19 has shaped mental health, daily routines, parent-child interactions, and food security among families with children. All households have at least one child under the age of 18. I recruited from 5 NC counties – Cabarrus, Durham, Guilford, Halifax and Wake. I am surveying participants again in January, so I do not have any preliminary findings at this time.
- How did you become interested in studying COVID’s effect on Black families? How does it align with your previous research projects?
- As a woman of color, I profoundly understand the importance of eradicating illnesses that disproportionately impact racial and ethnic minority populations. Since its onset, COVID-19 has had a clearly disparate effect on African American communities. Data suggest that African Americans are dying at a rate 2.5 to 3 times higher than other groups. While we are aware of the infection and death rates, little is known about how COVID-19 is shaping other elements of African American lives – namely mental health, employment, parent-child interactions, and food security. Giving voice to underrepresented groups has always been an important component of my research agenda. I am hoping that this study will shed light on the imperative work that needs to be done to improve the lives of African American children and families. This study aligns nicely with my previous research, as I have focused on African American populations, day-to-day family processes, and health disparities.
This study seeks to produce a strong anti-SARS-2-CoV vaccine by optimizing all three branches of the immune system: B cell antibody response, T lymphocytes and innate immunity. This involves the specific design of two components of a vaccine:
- an antigen to activate specific T and B cell responses and
- PAMPs which serve as the adjuvant to enhance the innate immune response
- How will your research contribute to the efforts to find and disseminate a COVID-19 vaccine?
- We are testing a way to increase the strength of COVID-19 vaccines using what is called adjuvants. Adjuvants activate a branch of immunity called innate immunity, which can help strengthen and lengthen a specific immune response to pathogens. We are comparing different adjuvants to identify the best ones for a COVID-19 vaccine. We are hoping that the adjuvants can promote both antibody response and immune memory response. By making the vaccine response stronger, it is more likely to help the elderly, which is a key at-risk population for COVID-19. By making the immunity last longer with stronger memory, this will lengthen our immunity against the virus.
- What have been some of your most significant preliminary findings?
- Thus far we have found adjuvants that promote strong immunity, and one specific one that promoted a branch of immunity that involves T lymphocytes, which can further augment an antibody response.
On August 26 2020, Shadi Eskaf, Elsemarie Mullins and Austin Thompson published a report assessing the impact of COVID-19 on NC Water and Wastewater Utilities through July 2020. This project is funded in partnership with the NC Division of Water Infrastructure (DWI) and the NC Policy Collaboratory.
- Can you describe the timeline for this project?
- We started work for the Collaboratory project at the beginning of August and will continue through December. Our final report, which will highlight mid-term impacts of COVID-19 on water and wastewater utilities in North Carolina, will be released in January 2021. The report for the Collaboratory will focus on the ongoing conditions of utilities in the next few months, which is past the moratorium period, and the focus is more on getting customers to participate in payment plans to pay their past due bills.
- Can you summarize the findings in your report? What is the connection between wastewater management and the pandemic?
- In the DWI report, we found that the impact of COVID-19 on water and wastewater utilities varied widely depending on the utility. From a statewide perspective, conditions may seem overall manageable, but at the end of July some individual utilities and their customers had greater financial challenges than others. For instance, some utilities reported that more than 40% of their customers were behind in paying bills, the average late bill amounted to more than $500, or that more than 20% of their customers were eligible to be disconnected due to nonpayment of bills. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of access to clean water in our society. Providing safe drinking water and treating wastewater are essential services, especially when hand-washing is promoted as a key strategy for fighting the virus.
- Can you summarize your project and preliminary findings?
- The project focuses on exploring drones as an option to deliver medical and other pandemic and/or disaster-related essential supplies to rural parts of the region. Our initial assessment indicates that a high endurance, high payload capacity drone is needed to reach out to remote corners of the region (60-90 miles). We have settled on a Vertical Take-off and Landing (VTOL) configuration with a payload capacity of around 15 lbs. In addition, we are also looking into quadcopters and hexacopters from our existing fleet as a viable option for small payload and short distance (1-2 miles) deliveries.
- What is your project’s timeline?
- The long-range drone is being designed and custom built for our application. It will take around 6 months for the vehicle to be ready. Currently, ECSU is only authorized to operate drones under 55 lbs. The new drone does not fall under the current authorization and hence, further FAA certificate of authorization (COA) will be needed. We are working with the drone manufacturer to start the process of seeking FAA waivers needed to operate such a vehicle. This process can also take anywhere from 6-8 months and we plan to start this concurrently with drone purchase.
In an economy that previously had a larger portion of the workforce performing “gig” work (e.g., Task Rabbit, Care.com, or Wag dog walking), this project proposes to study the short-term impacts on this workforce now forced to seek digital “gig” work including online freelance or micro-tasking.
- Have you started collecting and analyzing data yet?
- We are really early in data collection. We started in late August to formulate things, going through the Institutional Review Board (IRB) because we are interacting with human subjects. We’ve been doing analysis of online forums where people talk about their work — gig economy forums — and also just a couple of interviews already. But as we scan these sources, early findings demonstrate really fundamental changes.
Trends in Gig Economy Work
Location-dependent gig work: fundamental changes depending on the type of work
- Decrease in ride-sharing drivers and dog walkers
- Increase in delivery services
Location-independent: Increase in the number of people approaching crowd-sourcing platforms or freelancing work
- Many of these people have lost their jobs and are looking for this type of work, but the number of jobs in this category has not changed so demand is outweighing the supply
“COVID is a lens that we use to surface inherent challenges and opportunities of gig work.”
This study will develop and disseminate guidelines for school-based mental health professionals providing mental health care for students who are high risk for suicide —which is expected to be a significant group due to school closures and interrupted mental health care during the expected second wave of COVID-19 this fall. Dr. Marisa Marraccini is collaborating with Dr. Dana Griffin and Dr. Lauren Sartain.
- How did you become interested in this topic?
- During my doctoral training, my experiences as a school psychology intern in a rural high school informed my awareness of the need to better support adolescents with mental health crises in school settings. I continued to appreciate the importance of the role of school professionals for preventing suicide during my postdoctoral training focused on suicide research with adolescents hospitalized for suicide-related crises. These experiences taught me the importance of communication between families, schools, and hospitals, and the critical need to support schools in delivering mental health interventions, particularly since most mental health services for adolescents with psychiatric disorders are provided in school settings (see Costello et al., 2014).
- Any updates on your research?
- We are preparing to disseminate surveys to adolescents previously hospitalized for suicide-related thoughts and behaviors and their parents, as well as school professionals across the state. We are also analyzing some of the data we had collected this past spring, when schools first closed. We are working as quickly as possible to share preliminary findings soon.