What Can We Learn About These Interesting Times?

When the campus moved to distance learning to comply with stay-at-home orders, some WSU Vancouver researchers unable to pursue their existing projects turned instead to look at how COVID-19 was affecting various communities.

In March 2020, when Washington universities, including WSU Vancouver, moved to distance learning to comply with the governor’s stay-at-home order, they also closed all research, except for essential activities. Those activities included caring for research animals and continuing experiments dependent on long-term data collection, such as field studies measuring something that happens every year, with years of previous data already collected. The only new projects allowed were those related to COVID-19.

Quickly, researchers showed their resilience, pivoted, and started new research or expanded existing projects relevant to COVID-19. “It speaks to the caliber of our faculty and students that we were able to do that,” said Christine Portfors, vice chancellor for research and graduate education.

The new projects, she added, are “a lot broader than what people might expect. We are not looking for better testing or a vaccine or methods of contact tracing, but rather the impacts of the pandemic on various communities.”

Portfors’ office matched the researchers in flexibility and creativity. With dollars in hand that, in a normal year, would be allocated in the form of WSU mini grants, Portfors sent out a request for proposals for COVID-related research projects. Ultimately, she funded $55,000 in projects. Several other new projects had secured or were seeking funding independently.

Other than “essential personnel” to feed animals and maintain equipment, there were very few people on campus. (Fortunately, many researchers were able to analyze data and write papers from home.) Projects got delayed; grad students lost time toward completion of their degrees. No federal funder, including the National Institutes of Health, provided guidance. Every research university in the United States and Canada collaborated to develop guidelines defining essential activities and plans for resuming activities.

In June, based on priority, some projects at WSU Vancouver ramped up again, with specific guidelines to protect the health and safety of faculty, staff and students, and mitigate spread of the virus. The ramp-up continues in phases.

“Kudos to the people who were able to pivot and do work we were able to fund, and that has real impact on real people,” Portfors said. “They have to be really good researchers to come up with a new study in a matter of weeks and start collecting data.” Here are some of those projects:

Chun-Chu (Bamboo) Chen, hospitality business management, Carson College of Business: “Examining the Impacts of COVID-19 Layoffs and Furloughs for the Hospitality Workforce.” As the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic devastated the hospitality workforce, Chen sought to assess the personal finances, health and psychological impacts on the hospitality workforce in the U.S. The study results from a sample of 607 unemployed and furloughed hospitality workers revealed that respondents had experienced significant financial and psychological distress. Further, financial strain, social isolation and pandemic-induced panic led to depression, which subsequently linked to impaired health and well-being, while social isolation had the strongest effects on adverse outcomes.

Susan Finley, education: ”Digital storytelling around COVID-19 and art expression.“ Finley, who directs the At Home At School project, is an arts-based researcher. To stimulate a broad community conversation, she set up an Instagram site (arts. researcher) for artists to highlight books, articles, websites, blogs and Instagram accounts about art and research. She also sorted messages and artworks into themes related to coronavirus and posted them to the site. In addition, she developed an Instagram TV series on coronavirus responses among artists. Using open-access platforms, Finley aims to erase divisions between the ivory tower and local communities, and encourage conversations across groups.

Steve Fountain, history and Native American affairs, with Desiree Hellegers, English, and graduate student Jude Wait: ”Food System Justice Action Research at WSU Vancouver.“ The Collective for Environmental Justice launched the FSJAR program to study heightened food insecurity, which was growing even before the pandemic. Beginning with a survey, the project will expand as funds become available, looking at production, processing, distribution and more in an effort to improve food sovereignty. The ultimate goal is to establish a transdisciplinary food system program at WSU Vancouver that will integrate research, experiential learning, career training/job creation and community service to address the food security crisis and promote food system resilience in the region.

Shelly Fritz, nursing, with co-PIs Marian Wilson and Shawn Brow in Spokane: “Impact and Efficacy of Homemade Masks in a Pandemic.” When nursing friends expressed alarm about the shortage of respirator masks at their hospitals, Fritz and her colleagues developed two types of masks that could be made at home. Then they “fit tested” the masks on 28 front-line health workers at Arbor Health in Morton, Wash. The goal was to determine how well the masks could protect people while allowing for ease of breathing and conversation. One of their two prototypes ensured a tight-enough seal to be effective. This mask is made of cotton fabric, a long cord and a piece of a household air filter inserted into a pocket in the mask. The researchers consider these washable and reusable masks a better alternative to disposable masks and useful not only for nurses but for anyone.

Tracy Klein and Louise Kaplan, nursing: “COVID-19 Health Professional Policy Persistence Study.” Klein and Kaplan are collaborating with the American Association of Nurse Practitioners to study changes in policy, including licensure requirements, adopted by states to facilitate the practice and workforce flexibility of health professionals. They are particularly interested in how these changes may impact states that previously restricted the scope of nurse practitioners.

Bala Krishnamoorthy, mathematics and statistics, with Ananth Kalyanaraman in Pullman and colleagues from the University of Virginia: “Generating Actionable Insights from COVID-19 Data.” The team is using topological data analysis to generate and study interactive visual maps that help identify incidences of COVID-19 in different geographic regions which can be explained by behavioral similarities, and where key interventions may help explain differences in caseloads. The goal is to identify ways to devise more targeted intervention mechanisms. The team plans to continue the work for at least two years.

Jane Lanigan, human development, with Yoshie Sano, human development, Linda Eddy, nursing, and others: “Impacts of Social Distancing due to COVID-19 on Health Behaviors.” A comparison of pre- and post-COVID-19 experiences among a set of U.S. adults found a significant decrease in physical activity and an increase in sedentary behaviors, social isolation and food insecurity—all resulting in a decline in subjective well-being. Within the context of the pandemic, “vulnerability” includes not only such factors as age and compromised immune systems but also negative health behaviors, suggesting the need for a variety of interventions. Social support has emerged as a key way to encourage healthy behaviors.

Kevan Moffett, environmental hydrology, and Deepti Singh, School of the Environment: “Quantifying climate hazards and demographic factors that could compound COVID risks on communities across the Pacific Northwest.” Recent studies from around the world have shown that exposure to bad air quality can increase the risk of COVID-19 and exposure to heat extremes can further exacerbate cardiovascular and respiratory health conditions. The researchers are using weather, air quality, demographic and socioeconomic data to characterize the factors that compound COVID-19 risks and vulnerabilities of communities in the Pacific Northwest, with the aim of identifying at-risk communities to help inform interventions and minimize risk.

Clay Mosher, public affairs and sociology, with colleagues Jennifer Sherman and Jennifer Schwartz in Pullman: “There’s a New Sheriff in Town: COVID-19’s impacts on Rural Justice, Community Health and Inequality.” Already-challenged justice systems in rural communities have been further strained by the pandemic. Many have released some inmates to mitigate spread of the virus, but little is known about the impact on surrounding communities or what happens to the former prisoners and the jails themselves. Using both quantitative and qualitative data, this project aims to answer the question of how rural jails in Washington state either exacerbate or mitigate social disenfranchisement and marginalization for vulnerable populations and communities, particularly in the context of a large-scale social and health disaster. The research is expected to have policy implications beyond the state.

Tahira Probst, psychology, with graduate students Hyun Jung Lee and Andrea Bazzoli: “Economic Stressors and the enactment of CDC- recommended COVID-19 prevention behaviors: The impact of state-level context.” The study explores whether economic stressors such as job insecurity and financial strain affect employees’ ability to comply with health guidelines. (See sidebar: Policies and behavioral consequences in a pandemic.)

Sara Waters, human development, with graduate student Suyeon Lee: “Asians’ Experiences of Racial Discrimination during the COVID-19 Pandemic: Impacts on Health Outcomes.” Asian Americans sometimes get blamed for the spread of COVID-19. Waters and Lee surveyed 416 Asian Americans to discover how much and what kind of discrimination they had experienced since the pandemic started and how it was affecting their physical and mental health. (See sidebar: How discrimination affects the health of Asian Americans.) ■

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