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Spring 2022
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Living with COVID: Briefs

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An update on how the Gillings School is involved in COVID-19 response.

Gillings faculty, students drive research to inform continued pandemic response.

Improving vaccine access and uptake

Research by Noel Brewer, PhD, Gillings Distinguished Professor in Public Health and professor of health behavior, became an important part of vaccine strategy for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Brewer found that people who received COVID-19 vaccine recommendations from their doctors or health care providers were more likely to get vaccinated. Brewer is part of the CDC’s Vaccine Confidence Work Group and, with Melissa Gilkey, PhD, assistant professor of health behavior, created Announcement Approach Training, which teaches health care providers to communicate more effectively about vaccination.

Gillings researchers also were involved in efforts through the UNC Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention (HPDP) to boost vaccination rates in areas where rates were low. One of 26 CDC Prevention Research Centers across the country that received support to increase equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines, the HPDP provided 18 primary care clinics with the coaching, data and community partnerships needed to get more people vaccinated, especially Black and Latinx patients.

Evaluating long-term COVID-19 vaccine efficacy

Danyu Lin, PhD, Dennis Gillings Distinguished Professor in the Department of Biostatistics, developed a statistical model to determine the long-term effectiveness of vaccines against COVID-19. Pharmaceutical companies plan to use this method as part of their ongoing trials to determine the optimal timing for booster shots.

Lin worked with Donglin Zeng, PhD, professor of biostatistics at Gillings, and Peter B. Gilbert, PhD, lead statistician with the COVID-19 Prevention Network, which conducts phase 3 efficacy trials for COVID-19 vaccines and monoclonal antibodies. In vaccine trials, some participants get the vaccine while others get a placebo. Lin’s study showed how to estimate time-varying vaccine efficacy (VE) through staggered vaccination of participants, and compares the performance of blinded and unblinded crossover designs in estimating long-term VE.

Understanding COVID-19’s airborne viability

To learn how to reduce the risk of exposure to infectious viruses, Karsten Baumann, PhD, assistant professor of environmental sciences and engineering, led a study of air from the dorm rooms of UNC students who tested positive for COVID-19. This research laid the groundwork for National Science Foundation research investigating several methods to inactivate infectious aerosol and contributed to a better understanding of outdoor exposures and potential methods to prevent indoor exposures, such as modifications to ventilation systems. 

COVID-19 simulation shows need for continued safety efforts during vaccine distribution

As vaccines became more widely available in the spring and summer of 2021, Associate Professor Kristen Hassmiller Lich, PhD, and doctoral student Karl Johnson, both with the Gillings Department of Health Policy and Management, helped develop a computer simulation model of North Carolina showing that continued mask-wearing and physical distancing could help prevent spikes in COVID-19 cases even as more people get vaccinated. The team, led by Mehul Patel, PhD, a Gillings alumnus and a clinical and population health researcher in the department of Emergency Medicine at UNC’s School of Medicine, showed that until about half of N.C.’s population was vaccinated, removing non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) such as masks and physical distancing could lead to continued spread of the virus. Such models have helped guide state leaders in making decisions around COVID-19 safety protocols.

Tracking human rights effects of COVID-19 response

As the COVID-19 pandemic continued across the world, public health responses varied greatly, and they rapidly evolved to keep up with changing conditions. The unprecedented nature of the pandemic meant human rights considerations often took a backseat to widespread public health concerns. To help keep track of how the pandemic — and pandemic response — affected human rights, doctoral students Hanna E. Huffstetler, MPH (global health), and Caitlin R. Williams, MSPH (maternal and child health), and Benjamin Mason Meier, JD, LLM, PhD, professor of health policy and management, led a team of Gillings students, faculty and alumni who created the UNC COVID-19 Health and Human Rights Monitor. This free, searchable online database uses media reports to monitor potential violations of human rights, with the goal of informing better responses to public health issues and emergencies without compromising human rights.