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DePaul creates COVID-19 research initiative

COVID-19 initiative grant recipients
Recipients of DePaul's "Contributing to the Understanding of COVID-19 initiative. Top row: Enid Montague, Bamshad Mobasher and Leonard Jason. Bottom row: Euan Hague, Christine Reyna and Traci Schlesinger. (Collage by Randall Spriggs)

In response to the COVID-19 global pandemic, DePaul called on its scientific community to address challenges in the areas of disease dynamics, health diagnostics, security, preparation for testing and clinical care related to the outbreak. In late spring, 15 proposals were submitted to the university's new "Contributing to the Understanding of COVID-19" initiative. Six projects were approved, and research began this month.

"We have faculty with expertise in this area and we wanted to provide seed funding to encourage and support DePaul faculty in pursuing COVID-19 related research," says Daniela Stan Raicu, associate provost for research at DePaul. "The success of these proposals will undoubtedly have a significant impact on our understanding of the COVID-19 pandemic."

With their grant awards, faculty will conduct preliminary research that contributes to the knowledge, technical expertise and understanding of the science of COVID-19, and approaches to mitigate the health equity and social justice dimensions of the disease.

Grant recipients and projects include:

Euan Hague, professor in the School of Public Service – Hague will examine COVID-19's disproportionate impact on lower-income communities of color. Individuals living in counties that are majority African-American are three times more likely to get infected and six times more likely to die from COVID-19 than individuals living in majority white counties.

This collaborative project with Rush University aims to identify racial and ethnic disparities in COVID-19 outcomes, and examine the extent to which demographics, clinical comorbidities and socioecological conditions explain variations in the severity of outcomes from COVID-19.

Leonard Jason, professor in the Department of Psychology – Jason's project will analyze young adults amid the COVID-19 outbreak. His group has recently collected baseline psychological and biological data on 4,501 college students between the years of 2014 and 2018. They will re-contact a sample of participants to assess their current behavioral and mental well-being.

Identification of risk factors predisposing patients to developing COVID-19 may help uncover underlying mechanisms of disease. Jason will compare his baseline data to current behavioral functioning, depression and anxiety for those after contracting COVID-19, as well as those who did not contract the disease. These results could be used to identify predisposing characteristics of those who develop COVID-19, and to create informed mental health treatments to assist with the psychological recovery after exposure.

Bamshad Mobasher, professor in the School of Computing -- During crises, social media are used by emergency responders, the media and the public to disseminate and search for credible information. These same channels can be used to propagate false rumors and misinformation that can hamper crisis communication and mitigation efforts.

Mobasher's project aims to develop automatic methods for misinformation detection on social media in a crisis context. His team will use natural language processing and other machine learning methods to extract salient features from social media posts related to COVID-19 and perform a detailed analysis. They will then train and evaluate machine learning models that classify posts containing misinformation to ultimately provide tools necessary to effectively counteract the impact of misinformation in this crisis.

Enid Montague, associate professor in the School of Computing – Montague will explore inclusive human centered automation of health systems to improve patient access and safety, as well as to reduce physician burnout. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, healthcare systems struggled to provide optimal care for the increasing patient population. COVID-19 exacerbates access challenges in the healthcare system, as diagnosis and treatment for many chronic conditions are delayed due to infectious disease controls.

The long-term goal is to boost health and well-being by using automation to enhance physician capabilities to serve more patients, without exacerbating existing challenges, such as medical error, burnout and health disparities.

Christine Reyna, professor in the Department of Psychology -- The COVID-19 pandemic has upended societies in a way not seen in over a century. Economies are collapsing, unemployment is skyrocketing and fear of an unseen menace is creating an overwhelming sense of threat. These circumstances are ideal for the rise in authoritarianism and the dismantling of democratic norms.

Authoritarianism has traditionally been studied as a personality variable. However, research shows people are willing to support authoritarian leaders and policies under extreme circumstances, such as in times of existential threat coupled with loss of a status quo. Reyna will survey a sample of adults to test a model that predicts shifts towards authoritarianism in a crisis like a pandemic.

Traci Schlesinger, associate professor in the Department of Sociology -- Prisons and detention centers are amplifiers of infectious diseases. The conditions that keep diseases from spreading, including social distancing, are nearly impossible to achieve. Incarcerated people also are substantially more likely to have chronic health conditions than the general population, and medical care is habitually under resourced. Outbreaks like COVID-19 in correctional facilities are likely to be particularly deadly.

Aiming to protect prison staff, incarcerated people and people in the communities to which incarcerated people return following their release, some state legislatures, Departments of Corrections and State's Attorneys Offices are shifting policies to decrease admissions to and increase releases from facilities. Schlesinger's project will use mixed effects regression analysis and mapping to examine the impact of quickly shifting city, state and federal carceral policy on the spread and deadliness of COVID-19 in state and federal prisons, as well as ICE detention facilities.