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Policy-focused research continues to explore pandemic’s social impact

As the COVID-19 pandemic approaches its two-year mark, Northwestern researchers continue to confront the public health threat along various fronts.

In addition to launching biomedical investigations to help understand and fight the virus, University faculty have pursued other research streams to mitigate the threat. These include projects fueled by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation Pandemic Response Policy Research Fund, an initiative launched last April to evaluate policies and actions during the pandemic and to explore potential future recommendations to strengthen public health.

These efforts were made possible by a $1 million grant from the Peterson Foundation, a nonpartisan organization that advocates for fiscal sustainability, economic strength, and public awareness of important fiscal challenges.

Now, five additional faculty members from Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management and Feinberg School of Medicine have initiated research projects thanks to second-round funding support from the Peterson Foundation.

The second-round recipients, their primary department affiliation, and project title are:

  • Lindsay Allen, emergency medicine. “Telehealth as a Substitute for Non-urgent Emergency Department Care During the Pandemic: How Much Can We Really Save?”
  • Charlesnika Evans, preventive medicine. “Strengthening resilience in the healthcare system and maintaining an effective trained workforce to deliver safe, quality care by reducing burnout of healthcare workers during COVID-19”
  • Jaline Gerardin, preventive medicine. “COVID-19 surveillance in Illinois: Trends, disparities, and design”
  • Robert KORA, finance. “Student Loan Forbearance in the Pandemic Recession”
  • Cynthia Wang, management and organizations. “Mitigating the Negative Health Effects of Belief in COVID-19 Conspiracy Theories for U.S. Adults and their Children”

In total, the Peterson Foundation Pandemic Response Fund now has supported 13 Northwestern COVID-19 research projects this year. The research proposals were evaluated and approved by a University review committee whose members represented a diversity of disciplines, experience, and backgrounds. To be eligible, faculty members needed to demonstrate their work’s potential to increase knowledge about the pandemic’s societal impacts and to develop action-oriented solutions to protect against future U.S. pandemics. The 12-to-18-month second-round research projects also needed to show research rigor as well as policy relevance for the U.S. economic and fiscal outlook, or else help improve the quality of cost-effective healthcare — all essential parts of the Peterson Foundation’s mission.

Allen’s research project studies the potential for telemedicine to improve health outcomes and reduce costs. She notes that prior studies indicate telehealth cost-savings are offset by increases in “downstream healthcare use” and by generating new healthcare visits that increase spending. Allen’s team’s new investigation takes a closer look at these dynamics to help design more cost-effective telemedicine approaches to maximize the technology’s value during the pandemic and beyond.

Meanwhile, Evans and her team are examining how an online psychological well-being intervention could help assess and mitigate the pandemic “burnout” affecting healthcare workers. Annual estimated costs to replace a physician who leaves a healthcare setting due to pandemic stress can total $7,600, while it may cost more than $16,000 to replace a nurse. Programs focused on reducing burnout can potentially reduce annual healthcare system costs by $5,000 per worker. Evans’ study looks to survey the current psychological well-being among Northwestern Medicine healthcare workers, as well as the ability of the intervention to reduce burnout, absenteeism, turnover, and more. Evans says that such interventions have the potential to significantly benefit healthcare organizations and bolster resiliency in the healthcare delivery system.

The Gerardin group is exploring how to improve COVID-19 surveillance in Illinois. Understanding transmission trends is critically important for public health officials but is technically challenging due to the ways common indicators like case counts and test positivity are currently assessed. Her research will provide weekly estimates of transmission rates in Chicago that adjust hospitalization data to account for vaccine uptake. She is also quantifying racial and ethnic disparities in testing, cases, deaths, and vaccination — and tracking how these change over time. In addition, Gerardin is creating a simulation model to explore the potential requirements of an effective sentinel surveillance system and then estimating the cost-effectiveness of such an innovation.

For his project, KORA and his team are studying the labor market impact of a nearly two-year freeze on student loan payments by the U.S. Department of Education. He aims to understand how the government’s pandemic response, which included setting interest rates to zero percent and stopping all collections on defaulted loans, impacted the U.S. economy. A key research focus: did borrowers with temporarily paused student loan obligations make different labor market decisions than they might otherwise have made if their financial stress had not been alleviated by this intervention? Identifying the market impacts of such loan relief can offer key insights for future policymaking.

By examining COVID-19 conspiracy theories, Wang and her colleagues look to remedy their negative impact on public health. Her project seeks to develop social interventions that ameliorate these adverse effects. In particular, she is focused on increasing the masking and vaccination rates of adults with COVID-related conspiratorial beliefs. The team’s interventions differ from previous efforts, she says, in that they “do not rely on rational persuasion to dissuade people of conspiratorial notions.” Instead, Wang concentrates on reducing the impact of conspiratorial beliefs by using “social and relational interventions” intended to either increase social connection to certain people and groups or else alter the way people think about their existing identities and groups. If effective, these interventions can be included in future public health communications efforts and educational programs.

Learn more about all the funded projects.

The funding from Peterson Foundation helps realize the transformational vision set forth in Northwestern’s strategic plan and solidify the University’s position among the world’s leading research universities.

-Matt Golosinski