Scientists and community organizations team up to track and assess COVID-19 response

A team from the University of Kansas Center for Community Health and Development has partnered with Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health and other community organizations to track and assess the countywide public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The work by CCHD, part of KU's Life Span Institute, is supported by a $40,000 grant from the Kansas Health Foundation.

"The idea of the initiative is to help the local government and public health agency better understand and support their communitywide COVID-19 response efforts -- and ultimately to reduce transmission and promote health in the community," said Christina Holt, assistant director with the CCHD, who is leading the work under the grant.

Over the years, a focus of our center's research has been to determine what dose of community efforts are needed to change outcomes at the population level. We've worked over decades helping communities document their public health interventions.

So, we're implementing an adaptation of that same systematic methodology for COVID-19 response and recovery efforts and will use that data to better understand and shape the local response efforts and share lessons learned more broadly."

Christina Holt, Assistant Director, CCHD

Holt is leading the work under the grant.

The CCHD team, including senior personnel, a graduate student and several undergraduates, is setting up a customized Community Check Box Evaluation System to gather and interpret COVID-19 data from multiple sources in Douglas County, connecting the information to changing policies and procedures meant to combat the spread of coronavirus in the county.

"The work of the Center for Community Health and Development to document and assess our local COVID-19 response efforts is the latest in a long line of collaborative projects," said Dan Partridge, director of Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health. "We are excited to be able to leverage the center's expertise and learn in near real time how we can best help our community stay safe and well."

Factors such as phased business and school re-openings, or efforts to expand testing and contact tracing, will be associated with rising or falling numbers of COVID-19 cases.

"We're helping them track what's changing in the environment in order to help reduce COVID-19 transmissions," Holt said. "There are different types of outcome data that we're tracking -- like new cases from community transmission, or hospitalizations -- and associating trends in that data with the onset of new or modified programs, policies or practices in the community, such as the extension of Phase

"Three of the reopening. Other examples include local closures of schools, implementation of contact tracing, recommendations for social distancing and prohibitions on mass gatherings of certain sizes."

In addition to the health department, the KU team is collecting information and providing useful data back to a unified command group that includes Douglas County Emergency Management, local government, LMH Health, the USD 497 school district, Heartland Community Health Center and KU's Watkins Health Services.

Collaborating with these partners, the CCHD will:

Design and implement a COVID-19 monitoring and evaluation system to document activities that make up the COVID-19 response in Lawrence-Douglas County Provide training, consultation and technical support use of the COVID-19 monitoring and evaluation system, including capturing and coding activities, characterizing their contribution and using information and graphs to communicate patterns. Provide quality control of data entry in the COVID-19 monitoring and evaluation system.

Facilitate regular sessions with stakeholders on what patterns can be seen in accomplishments and implications for quality improvement.

"We're obtaining response data from interviews, meeting notes and news accounts," Holt said. "We will engage local stakeholders in checking completeness of the data and engaging in sensemaking and use of the data to inform local efforts."

The work now being performed under the new KHF grant continues a longstanding partnership between the center and LDCPH. In 2013, the two organizations partnered to establish an academic health department -- the first academic health department in Kansas.

"It's essentially an academic collaboration -- if you think of medical students and the kind of experience they get -- the idea is to pool assets from both institutions," Holt said.

"The health department benefits from the knowledge and the expertise of local researchers, and faculty and students are able to put research into practice to improve the public's health, including through supporting local community health assessment and community health improvement planning efforts."

The work now underway with the KHF grant mirrors other efforts at CCHD to combat the spread of COVID-19, including a recently announced partnership with the World Health Organization to monitor and evaluate the response by public health organizations in nations throughout Africa.

Holt said it's a trying time for public health professionals locally and around the world, but one that shows the significance of the field to humanity.

"Historically, public health has been pretty underappreciated," she said. "Because so much of it is prevention, it's often not seen. COVID-19 has changed that -- the pandemic is directly affecting people's quality of life so much, the visibility of public health has been raised.

This is a time for public health to be supported more and for public health practitioners to really show why public health is so critical, both during this global pandemic and going into the future."

Along with Holt, CCHD personnel involved in the work include senior adviser Stephen Fawcett, doctoral student and researcher Ruaa Hassaballa and undergraduate student Anagha Anantharaman, a pre-med student. Two other students just came on board and will also help support this project.

"The COVID-19 response impacts the lives of everyone in our community, and I value the opportunity to work at the local level to document real-time progress, facilitate the quality improvement of the COVID-19 response and support data-informed decisions," Hassaballa said.

"As a doctoral student in the KU applied behavioral science department, collaborating with partners and colleagues provides me a rich opportunity to view the multifaceted response needed to address this pandemic and prevent future ones."

The CCHD is in preliminary talks with Wyandotte County about a similar monitoring and evaluation project and could expand work to other counties in Kansas.

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