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Turning data into decisions in a pandemic

July 24, 2020

College of Health Solutions hosts public health talk on how researchers are translating data to help inform public health decisions

Mere hours ahead of Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey’s press conference on Thursday, July 23, in which he discussed the hotly contested issue of whether to delay the reopening of schools this fall, Arizona State University’s College of Health Solutions hosted their latest public health talk, “Data to decisions: Using information to take action during COVID-19.”

It couldn’t have been more timely, given Ducey’s announcement that the decision of whether or not to reopen schools would be left up to individual school districts, but suggested they make their decision based on a set of benchmarks informed by the most current data we have on the virus, to be decided upon by public health officials by Aug. 7.

While not everyone was satisfied with that decree, it does underscore the importance of data in making decisions that affect public health.

Evidence-based research and data have “always been a cornerstone of public health,” said Will Humble, executive director for the Arizona Public Health Association. Humble has 30 years’ experience in public health, including more than two decades at the Arizona Department of Health Services. He participated in Thursday’s public health talk via Zoom, along with Timothy Lant, director of program development at ASU’s Biodesign Institute who is leading the COVID-19 modeling task force at the university, and Scott Leischow, College of Health Solutions professor and director of clinical and translational science who moderated the talk.

“Whatever your role is in public health, it’s super important to have academic partners, because they’re the folks that have the ability to dive into the data and do the analyses you need to better inform your decisions,” Humble added. “It’s such a critical component. … There’s no substitute for that kind of expert analysis.”

In addition to providing predictive modeling for policy and decisionmakers, researchers at ASU developed the state’s first saliva-based diagnostic test and soon after partnered with the Arizona Department of Health Services to launch testing sites to provide the saliva diagnostic testing free of charge for underserved communities around the state.

Lant began his presentation by delving straight into the data, referencing a slide showing the number of cases reported that day (2,335). While April and May saw a long, somewhat confusing period of plateaued growth in which the disease wasn’t able to get a foothold, Lant said, shortly after businesses began reopening and social distancing measures were pulled back in mid-May, the data began to show an exponential increase in cases that lasted through July.

The increase in cases wasn’t immediate, though, and Humble — who appointed himself the “color commentary” to Lant’s “play-by-play” — explained that’s because there is always a delay in the numbers that data shows.

“You can look at the data between May 15 and June 1 and it still looked OK, because there was a delay; it’s not real time,” Humble said. “So what we saw really was metrics that looked OK up until, I would say, May 26. (After that), it looked like a check mark. The data goes right back. By early June, it was really quite clear for anyone paying attention to the data posted on the Biodesign website … that we were headed for exponential growth, just as the model predicted."

Other, more positive, things the data showed was an increase in mask wearing, Lant said. Not only that, the number of reported cases reflected the significant impact of mask wearing, decreasing after it was mandated in businesses.  

That’s the power of using data to make decisions, Humble said.

“That’s the real value of predictive modeling … the opportunity to translate that information into active knowledge so people who make the decision about policy can see what the most talented people in the state think it would look like in two months if you made those decisions.”

In response to a question from the audience about their thoughts on when schools should reopen, both Lant and Humble agreed it should be a condition-based decision, rather than attempting to set a date. Specifically, Humble pointed to two metrics he’d like to see on the decline: hospitalization rates and the seven-day moving average of positive cases. For the latter metric, Arizona is currently at about 23%, which he would like to see at about 5% before schools reopen.

There are reasons why it’s important for children to be back in school, though, Lant argued. “And if schools can create a safe environment, we should do that.”

However, he added, “If we reopen schools and there are cases that emerge with students or teachers who then go home, and maybe they’re living in multigenerational families or maybe they have parents who don’t believe all the social distancing measures are required. … (In that case), we could have an outright mess … with superspreading events. So I think we need to very carefully think through not just how to reopen but how to stay safe when we do.”

Lant is personally deeply engaged in ASU’s efforts to reopen this fall, reporting that the university’s plan is comprehensive, including not just predictive modeling but also measures for testing and contact tracing.

“We’re really thinking about the whole student experience, and faculty and staff, too,” Lant said. “Mill Avenue is not going to be the same this year as it was last year. Going to a football game is not going to be the same this year as it was last year. That’s the reality and we’re going to have to confront that."

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Rapid relief grants aid Arizona's vulnerable populations

July 24, 2020

ASU Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict receives $150K to help groups serving communities hit hard by pandemic

In Arizona, some of the communities hit hardest by the coronavirus pandemic have been the same communities whose plight often goes unnoticed — refugees, asylum-seekers, DACA recipients, mixed-status migrants and Native American tribes.

In a move that is new to the Arizona State University Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict, it has been able to award grants ranging from $3,000 to $10,000 to 13 separate organizations serving the state’s most vulnerable communities, after receiving $150,000 in funding from the Henry Luce Foundation.

“We're usually asking for money; we're not in the business of giving it away, so it's such a privilege to be able to do this,” said Tracy Fessenden, a professor in ASU’s School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies and co-director of the project, “COVID Relief and Southwest Stories,” along with Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict Interim Director John Carlson.

The grants will allow such organizations as the undocumented-, DACA- and youth-led Aliento; the Iranian American Society of Arizona; and Navajo United Way to provide rapid relief to those they serve — many of whom have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic — in many forms: baby formula and diapers, rent and medical bill assistance, food donations and wireless internet.

When the virus hit this spring and funds that might otherwise have been used to facilitate in-person conferences and gatherings went unclaimed, the Luce Foundation found itself with a surplus. So it reached out to several centers and institutions across the country, the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict included, in the hopes that they could use their existing community connections to distribute funding to those who needed it most.

“We saw this as a great opportunity to reach out to some of our community partners and do a very different kind of work than we're used to doing,” Carlson said.

In addition to community partners, colleagues including Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict Assistant Director Carolyn Forbes and the center's communications, outreach and events coordinator Sarah Lords (who also serves as grant administrator for the project); Irasema Coronado from the School of Transborder Studies; faculty from the School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies; and former ASU Professor Rebecca Tsosie, now a Regents Professor of Law at University of Arizona, were instrumental in connecting with nonprofits, migrant and borderland communities, and tribal nations in order to identify the areas in greatest need.

With $100,000 going directly to the various organizations to meet immediate community needs, the remaining $50,000 will be used to fund the Southwest Stories initiative, a supplemental dimension of the project in collaboration with ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication that the Luce Foundation asked be established as a means of telling the stories of those organizations and the people they serve.

Fessenden said that part of the pandemic experience in the state has been silencing of people's experiences.

“The neglect of people’s stories is something we felt we could address with this project,” she said.

As part of the Southwest Stories initiative, she and Carlson worked closely with Cronkite Interim Dean Kristin Gilger to identify two local journalists who had been furloughed — Maria Polletta, a state government and politics reporter, and Rafael Carranza, a U.S.-Mexico border reporter — and recruited them for the project. Their resulting articles will be shared online via “A Journal of the Plague Year,” a website dedicated to documenting the impact of COVID-19 through stories, images, audio recordings and more.

“A Journal of the Plague Year” was created in March by a group of ASU faculty from the School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies.

Polletta and Carranza will also serve as mentors to four Cronkite undergrads who lost their summer internships due to the pandemic, guiding them as they write their own articles for the Southwest Stories initiative.

“Even with this very generous grant from the Luce Foundation and the privilege of being in the position to give some of that money out, it can be frustrating because so much of this is just a drop in the bucket,” Fessenden said. “But what was really encouraging is that every one of the applications we funded had a very clear plan for this money, in some cases down to the penny, showing how much it cost per diaper to get all the babies in this community in diapers, for instance. So it has been both humbling and gratifying as well.”

Top photo courtesy of Pixabay