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DePaul University researchers address COVID-19 challenges

Faculty will examine disease dynamics, health diagnostics and other areas related to the outbreak

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COVID-19 research
DePaul University faculty are conducting COVID-19 research in the areas of disease dynamics, health diagnostics, security, preparation for testing, and clinical care related to the outbreak. Researchers include Enid Montague, Bamshad Mobasher, Leonard Jason, Euan Hague, Christine Reyna and Traci Schlesigner. (Collage by Randall Spriggs)
CHICAGO — In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, DePaul University has 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.

"We have faculty with expertise in these areas and the university will provide seed funding to encourage and support them in pursuing COVID-19 related research," said 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."

Faculty available to discuss how their research will contribute to the knowledge, technical expertise and understanding of the science of COVID-19, as well as approaches to mitigate the health equity and social justice dimensions of the disease, include:

Public service

Public service

Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development

Professor Euan Hague is an urban geographer and director of DePaul's School of Public Service. Joseph Schwieterman is a professor in the School of Public Service and the director of DePaul's Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development. Scott Smith is an urban planner and public health researcher who serves as assistant director of the Chaddick Institute. The trio will lead an interdisciplinary research team in examining COVID-19's disproportionate impact on lower-income communities of color.​

This collaborative project with the city of Chicago and Rush University aims to identify racial and ethnic disparities in COVID-19 outcomes within Chicago. One aspect of the project will involve utilizing Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to examine the extent to which demographics, clinical comorbidities and socioecological conditions explain variations in the severity of outcomes from COVID-19. They hope by mining the data, that they can better understand how to better protect at-risk populations and conduct testing more efficiently.

Community psychology

Professor Leonard Jason is a community and clinical psychologist, and director of the Center for Community Research at DePaul. His research project will analyze young adults amid the COVID-19 outbreak. His research group recently collected baseline 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 health and well-being.

Jason seeks to identify risk factors that predispose patients to developing COVID-19, which may help uncover underlying mechanisms of the disease. He will compare his baseline data to current functioning for those who contracted COVID-19, as well as those who did not contract the disease. The results could be used to identify predisposing characteristics of those who develop COVID-19, and to create treatments to assist with recovery after exposure.

Artificial intelligence

Professor Bamshad Mobasher is an expert in artificial intelligence and data analysis, and director of the Center for Web Intelligence in DePaul’s College of Computing and Digital Media. During crises, emergency responders, journalists and the public use social media 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 research project aims to develop automatic methods that detect misinformation on social media during a crisis. His team will use natural language processing and other machine learning methods to analyze social media posts related to COVID-19. Their goal is to provide tools that can effectively counteract the impact of misinformation in this crisis.

Health systems

Associate Professor Enid Montague is an expert in human computer interaction and bioinformatics. In her new research, she will explore ways to improve patient access and safety using inclusive, human-centered automation of health systems. She also is interested in ways these technologies can help physicians reduce burnout. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, health care systems already struggled to provide optimal care for the growing patient population. COVID-19 makes it harder for patients to access health care, delaying diagnosis and treatment for many chronic conditions.

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

Psychology

Professor Christine Reyna is director of the Psychological Science Program in DePaul’s College of Science and Health. 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. Reyna will survey a sample of adults to test a model that predicts shifts towards authoritarianism in a crisis like a pandemic.

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.

Sociology

Associate Professor Traci Schlesinger is director of graduate studies in sociology in DePaul’s College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences. She notes that prisons and detention centers are amplifiers of infectious diseases. The conditions that keep diseases from spreading, including social distancing, are nearly impossible to achieve in these facilities. 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 persons and those in the communities to which they return following their release, some state legislatures, departments of corrections and state attorney’s 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 U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement detention facilities.

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