A&S covid-19 research proposals

Investigating the effects of COVID-19

By Deserae E. del Campo

Investigating the effects of COVID-19

By Deserae E. del Campo
A&S scholars will examine multiple angles of how the current pandemic is affecting society.

How is COVID-19 spreading throughout South Florida and can mathematical models help detect the transmission and containment of the virus? Is the impact of social distancing and community lockdowns affecting families and elevating anxiety and depression in children? What does the public believe about the virus and are policymakers doing their best to share correct information about COVID-19?

Faculty across many disciplines will begin answering those questions and many more with the help of internal funding from the University of Miami College of Arts and Sciences.

“There are multiple lessons to learn about how this pandemic is affecting society. The goal in supporting faculty research is to create innovative approaches to difficult and complex problems happening within our community and communities around the world, and how our responses to COVID-19 will help us learn to develop new methods in handling natural disasters,” said Leonidas Bachas, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

The eight winning proposals feature projects rooted in the social and natural sciences — mathematics, psychology, political science, sociology — and are presented in methods of analytical study and scholarship addressing the many impacts of COVID-19. Here’s a look at the proposals and the teams behind them:

Psychological consequences of quarantine
Combining the expertise of researchers from the Department of Psychology, this proposal will examine if people adhere to social distancing measures. The team is using survey data collection from a sample of participants with diverse sociodemographic backgrounds to find predictors of adherence to social distancing and the risk factors for those who do not follow the COVID-19 social distancing guidelines.

The team will analyze the psychological symptoms of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is key for planning interventions that will alleviate psychosocial effects and help people cope with social distancing. According to their proposal, self-quarantine and social distancing measures related to the pandemic can cause individuals to experience anger, depression, and post-traumatic stress symptoms.  

“The proposed project has significant potential benefit to South Florida. It will provide a basis for developing evidence-based intervention strategies to address the needs of the community affected by the pandemic,” the team wrote in its proposal. The team includes Professor Maria Magdalena Llabre, Professor Patrice G. Saab, and Associate Professor Kiara Timpano.   

Families and child functioning
For this proposal, Psychology Professor Jill Ehrenreich-May is exploring how families and children are being affected by the COVID-19 outbreak. In her proposal, Ehrenreich-May addresses how there is little “research about the impact of community-level social distancing measures and lockdowns on family functioning and, in turn, child anxiety and depression.” 

The study is part of a coordinated effort with collaborators in four different locations—Toronto, Boston, and Miami. Measurements and data will be taken from surveys assessing family functioning, child anxiety, and depression symptoms as well as media and news consumption habits, social distancing habits, and children’s comprehension of the current situation.

According to the proposal, the study will also address the levels of anxiety and depression experienced by families and children during a pandemic outbreak and establish resources for individuals and families encountering similar experiences.

Modeling the outbreak
Funding for this project will help Department of Mathematics Assistant Professor Xi Huo and Professor Shigui Ruan analyze modelling approaches to measure the transmission dynamics of COVID-19.

According to their study, social distancing, isolation, and quarantine measures are major health interventions made to contain an infectious disease. Yet, the COVID-19 outbreak has created challenges due to limited testing kits during its early phases, which hindered the detection of cases, caused late healthcare responses, and a depletion of medical supplies.  

Using mathematical models, Huo and Ruan will construct simulations to study the impacts of case identifications and early interventions surrounding the outbreak of COVID-19 in South Florida specifically. They will also investigate how the magnitude of an outbreak can affect healthcare resources, as well as the efficiency of novel testing options and isolation strategies.

Resilience and risk
Brain functionality during times of crisis is at the core of this proposal submitted by Associate Professor of Psychology Jennifer C. Britton. By using fMRI scans of the brain, Britton will determine the relationship between emotional flexibility, the emotional response during social distancing, and the internalizing symptoms such as depression and anxiety.

To find out how the brain is functioning during the pandemic, Britton is using fMRI data to analyze the brain’s valence flexibility, which is the ability to effectively switch from negative to positive information. Valence flexibility, according to her proposal, “may be an important factor in determine resilience and/or vulnerability to internalizing disorders like anxiety and depress.”

“In this time of uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, cognitive and emotional flexibility are needed,” said Britton in her proposal. “Cognitive flexibility, an executive function, allows one to adapt to changing situations. In addition to cognitive flexibility, individuals must also exert emotional flexibility to cope with the negative emotions experienced due to COVID-19-related threats such as fear of illness and social isolation.” 

People often forgotten
For this proposal, Assistant Professor of Sociology Kathryn Nowotny is partnering with Dr. Zinzi Bailey, assistant scientist at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine’s Jay Weiss Institute for Health Equity at the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, to study the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the health and wellbeing of adults under community supervision and within community correctional facilities.

“Given the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 within prisons in other countries, U.S. correctional agencies are scrambling to implement strategies to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Many people under the supervision of the correctional system are in relatively poor health and have chronic health conditions, like high blood pressure, asthma, cancer, tuberculosis, hepatitis C and HIV, making them particularly vulnerable to communicable diseases,” the team wrote in their proposal.

By using precise data collection and analytical techniques, Nowotny and Bailey will identify the testing and diagnosis prevalence of COVID-19, and the health and service needs such as unemployment services and childcare services of adults under community supervision. They will also characterize how the broad impacts of COVID-19 — school closures, food insecurity, stress, social isolation, as well as community corrections, service, and treatment closures — are affecting the mental health and wellbeing of adults under community supervision.

Consequences of misinformation
This team brings together researchers in the departments of Political Science and Geography and Regional Studies to determine the causes and consequences of COVID-19 misinformation.

According to the proposal, “recent data suggests that one-third of Americans believe the consequences of COVID-19 have been exaggerated for political gain and that the virus was intentionally created and released to harm people.”

The team proposes to assess the public’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic by collecting survey data on participants’ awareness of the outbreak and their beliefs about the causes and consequences of the coronavirus. They will also measure public perceptions of government responses to COVID-19 to determine how Floridians change their perceptions and behaviors in response to shifting policies and messaging.

The findings will help science, health, and policy communicators develop best practices for sharing information and improving public compliance with safety measures. Team members include Associate Professors Casey Klofstad and Joseph Uscinski in the Department of Political Science and Associate Professor Justin Stoler in the Department of Geography and Regional Studies.

Digital narratives of COVID-19
Assistant Professor Susanna Allés-Torrent in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures is using digital humanities techniques to data-mine the web to compare the academic and social views of the pandemic.

The study aims to explore the social and digital narrative behind the data from humanistic and bilingual perspectives. “Particularly in this time, in which data about COVID-19 seems to be everywhere and overwhelmingly generated in large volumes, digital humanities approaches, methodologies, and tools can help people understand information about it,” she wrote in her proposal.

The proposal will bring together a community of scholars and students from the University of Miami and other institutions to create a data mining group and organize a collaborative, hands-on workshop. Scholars and researchers will gather data by reading and reviewing English and Spanish sources from multiple online and social media outlets while also conducting computerized remote analytical data collection.

Serving those in need  
Funding for this project will help Assistant Professor of Psychology Sannisha Dale understand the needs and concerns of Black women living with HIV in Miami, and asses how COVID-19 is affecting an already stressed community.

Dale and her team will conduct phone interviews and share information with a wide selection of HIV-positive Black women to obtain information on their concerns and worries regarding the pandemic and its disruption to their healthcare needs, from canceled appointments to the lack of medication supply or refills. The interviews will then be transcribed to find and decipher prominent issues expressed by the participants.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has and may continue to have far-reaching consequences, particularly for those who are immune-compromised. However, timely research may be beneficial in informing future practices and interventions that could be implemented to sustain the health of immune-compromised individuals, such as women living with HIV,” wrote Dale in her proposal.