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How Dornsife Experts Are Helping Us Understand the Impact of COVID-19

A Philadelphia playground sign says it is closed because of COVID-19

April 30, 2020

The Dornsife School of Public Health faculty, professional staff, and students have been working and learning remotely since mid-March. While navigating this new reality of social distancing, the Dornsife community has also stepped up to take action during this unprecedented moment in public health.

Whether it is sharing expertise in the media, conducting research on COVID testing inequalities, providing input to the City of Philadelphia, or supporting community leaders, the School is busy in varied and important ways during the coronavirus pandemic. Below are just a few examples.

Providing Facts, Not Fear

Dornsife faculty experts have been called on by the media to provide insights on public health practice, disparities, and urban health in relation to coronavirus in more than 125+ news items in publications like the New York Times, HuffPost, CNN, CNBC, NPR, FOX, USA Today, and more.

Notably, experts have helped to:

  • Clarify the facts and dispute inaccurate claims pertaining to the SARS-CoV-2 virus and the pandemic
  • Provide insights on the unique needs and challenges of urban areas during the pandemic
  • Shine a light on the lack of testing in Black and Brown neighborhoods
  • Describe why low-income communities are being hit disproportionality by COVID-19

Dornsife faculty and researchers continue to rise to the public’s demand for informed public health analysis.

Analyzing Emerging Issues

In another effort to provide timely, tangible information to the public, Dornsife introduced a webinar series, “Emerging Issues in the Coronavirus Pandemic.” The weekly webinar series features individuals who specialize in emergency preparedness, urban health, clinical trials and treatments, global health, health equity and more.

To date, nine webinars have attracted more than 5.5K viewers total. More webinars on relevant new topics will continue through May.

Conducting Vital Research

Usama Bilal, MD, PhD, assistant professor at Dornsife, has led research into the distribution of COVID-19 testing in Philadelphia. Bilal's research found that in neighborhoods with a higher number of unemployed or uninsured people, there was less testing. Zip codes with a lower proportion of minorities and higher incomes generally had a higher number of tests per capita. His findings received widespread media coverage.

Several projects by Dornsife researchers, listed below, were selected to receive funding as part of Drexel's Rapid Response Research & Development Fund, which was designated for urgent action, short-term projects focused on COVID-19 related health and health-related research and development.

  • Amy Carroll-Scott, PhD, MPH, associate professor of Community Health and Prevention, and Félice Lê-Scherban, PhD, MPH, assistant professor of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, both at Dornsife and the Urban Health Collaborative, are creating a user-friendly online dashboard to research COVID-19’s impact on the community.
  • In partnership with American University and Yale University, Ali Groves, PhD, MHS, assistant professor of Community Health and Prevention at Dornsife, is conducting in-depth interviews with low-income residents in Connecticut.
  • Igor Burstyn, PhD, associate professor, and Neal D. Goldstein, PhD, assistant research professor, both at Dornsife, are conducting research on how inaccuracies in current polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests affect estimates of the number of COVID-19 cases. Their statistical modeling approach estimates a number of cases of COVID-19 could have been misclassified among people who are tested for it in Philadelphia.
  • Jennifer A. Taylor, PhD, MPH, CPPS, director, Center for Firefighter Injury Research and Safety Trends (FIRST), and the Arthur L. and Joanne B. Frank Professor of Environmental and Occupational Health at Dornsife, is leading a study on the assessment of first responders mental health during the pandemic. “The coronavirus pandemic is shining a light on a system under incredible stress and at a breaking point,” says Taylor.

Burstyn is also working with Tran Huynh, PhD, MPH, CIH, assistant professor, department of Environmental and Occupational Health, to compile data on the experiences of residents with employment and health during the coronavirus pandemic in the Philadelphia region via a survey of residents, Coping with COVID-19 and Living in the Philadelphia Area. Huynh is also conducting research with the Drexel University Environmental Health and Safety unit on the effectiveness of microwave-generated steam cleaning of N-95 respirators and surgical masks.

Advocating for Policy Initiatives

Dornsife was founded on the principle of health as a human right. With that mission in mind, Dornsife experts have urged government officials to consider new legislation, policies, and spending that protect the health and human rights of everyone in the country, including our most vulnerable.

Sharrelle Barber, ScD, assistant research professor, and Shiriki K. Kumanyika, PhD, research professor, both at Dornsife, have been urging government officials and health providers to not only release Pennsylvania’s figures on COVID-19 and race, but to share specific geographic data. County-level figures without information on case numbers by zip code or municipality can be problematic. “We’re not wanting data for the sake of data,” Barber said. “We’re wanting data so we can mitigate this disproportionate impact in certain communities and come up with short- and long-term policy solutions to save lives.”

As unemployment continues to skyrocket across the United States, Mariana Chilton, PhD, professor at Dornsife and director of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities, has been advocating in the media for Congress to expand relief programs, like SNAP benefits, so people do not have to choose between food and basic necessities. "We need to make sure that the entire population is well-nourished and taken care of, not just because it's the morally right thing to do. It's so we don't get sick," said Chilton.

Joe Amon, PhD, MSPH, director of the Office of Global Health, and clinical professor, department of Community Health and Prevention at Dornsife, along with the ACLU of Pennsylvania, the Abolitionist Law Society and the Amistad Law Project, urged Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf to reduce inmate population amid the coronavirus outbreak. Together, they communicated the unique challenges for correctional facilities and the risks associated with not reacting. “There has been too limited of a response to prevent transmission in detention centers, including jails, prisons, and immigration detention facilities,” said Amon.

In early March, Ana V. Diez Roux, MD, PhD, MPH, dean and distinguished university professor of epidemiology, Amon, and Robert Field, PhD, MPH, professor with a joint appointment at Dornsife and Drexel's School of Law, joined more than 450 fellow public health and law experts to issue guidelines for the United States’ response to coronavirus transmission. The open letter detailed a series of recommendations that government officials should consider.

Over the past three months, as members of the City of Philadelphia’s Board of Health, Marla Gold, MD, professor and dean emerita, department of Health Management and Policy, John Rich, MD, MPH, professor, department of Health Management and Policy, and Diez Roux have been weighing in and sharing their expertise with the Philadelphia Department of Public Health (PDPH) and Health Commissioner Thomas Farley, MD, MPH. “I have been in touch with Commissioner Farley periodically and have offered the services of our School for whatever he needs,” said Diez Roux.

Serving Our Community

Ana Martinez-Donate, PhD, associate professor, department of Community Health and Prevention at Dornsife, is coordinating town hall meetings with Latino-serving organizations like Congreso, Esperanza Health Center, West Philadelphia Promise Zone, and CRISOL Program to better serve these communities during COVID-19. Numerous doctoral and master’s program students from Dornsife have been in attendance. Together, meeting attendees identify important issues and discuss possible solutions and resources to help alleviate them.

Esther Chernak, MD, MPH, FACP, associate professor, department of Occupational and Environmental Health, director, Center for Public Health Readiness and Communication at Dornsife, and her team assisted in the planning of the COVID-19 drive-thru testing facility at Citizens Bank Park in South Philadelphia. The site that was open for a couple weeks was created to provide testing to individuals over the age of 50. At this testing facility, Jennifer Kolker, MPH, clinical professor and associate dean for public health practice at Dornsife, along with several Dornsife students volunteered.

Afrah Howlader, BS ’21, has been volunteering remotely with First Up, a nonprofit that empowers early childhood educators in the Delaware Valley with resources and support, to gather legislative support of essential childcare funding during the pandemic.

Dornsife's Office of Practice and PDPH have been in touch about student's role in the City’s COVID-19 contact tracing efforts. "We anticipate that our students will be able to help the City move forward to the next stage of managing the pandemic," said Kolker.

Facing This Challenge

Now more than ever, having substantial coronavirus data to inform public health practice and improve population health is essential. The Dornsife community is sharing facts, using public health expertise to guide and support the best strategies, and working together to face this new challenge.

For more information on Dornsife’s response to COVID-19, visit the School’s dedicated coronavirus webpage.