USF researchers present progress and promise of COVID-19 seed grant projects

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In April 2020, as the first weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic began sweeping across Florida and the United States, USF Research & Innovation working with faculty members and college and department leadership to launch a first-of-its kind funding effort to jump start research into the disease and its impact.

The USF COVID-19 Rapid Response Research Grants program initially selected 14 projects and supported them with a total of $340,000. Two other funding rounds followed in the months after, bringing the university’s investment in COVID-19 research projects to more than $1 million, with support also coming from the Florida High Tech Corridor Council. The effort produced swift impact: 48 patent disclosures on COVID-19 fighting technologies emerged from the projects, while others went on to secure additional grant support and new corporate partners.

Recently, 10 teams from the first round of projects presented snapshots of their research eight months later, including what they learned in their initial findings and the next step for developing their projects.

“What we have seen here is a remarkable diversity of research and scholarship that we have been able to apply to the pandemic response. What we have accomplished in that year is really extraordinary,” said PRRN co-chair Professor Randy Larsen of USF’s Department of Chemistry.

“We were looking for very high-impact research on short timetables. The pandemic is in full force. We needed the research to be able to address the consequences of the pandemic.”

Here are a updates of the grants featuring faculty and students from the USF College of Public Health:

Social Closeness Despite Social Distance: A Study of Strategies to Fight Loneliness During the COVID-19 Pandemic

PI: Dr. Fallon Goodman, Department of Psychology, College of Arts and Sciences. Co-PIs: Dr. Getachew Dagne, College of Public Health; Dr. Jonathan Rottenberg, Department of Psychology, College of Arts and Sciences; Dr. Brent Small, School of Aging Studies, College of Behavioral and Community Sciences.

Even before the pandemic forced shut downs, quarantines and social distancing, loneliness was an epidemic. A team led by USF Psychology Assistant Professor Fallon Goodman has been exploring how the pandemic has further fractured social support systems and how loneliness has been magnified among those with preexisting psychological vulnerabilities, such as depression and social anxiety.

The team conducted daily surveys with 310 adults with elevated depression and/or social anxiety symptoms over a period of two weeks. They found, surprisingly, that despite the lock down participants socialized at least once on most days, either in person, or interacting with people during video chats or on social media.

The team also found that different social experiences impacted loneliness: On days when participants socialized, they reported the highest loneliness when they felt closed off from others and the lowest loneliness when they felt they could “effortlessly be themselves” – or, in other words, had authentic interactions with another person.

“While socializing via virtual platforms appeared to have some benefit for loneliness, participants felt most socially connected on days when they interacted with others in person,” Goodman said.

“We cannot replace the social connection that takes place face-to-face.”

After completing daily surveys, participants received a personalized profile summarizing their reports, which helped them make modifications if they were feeling socially disconnected, the team said. The team’s soon-to-be published research has already been widely-shared among academic and mental health advocacy organizations. The team intends to further their work with federal funding support.

In this video interview with the HEART Initiative, Dr. Goodman shares insights on anxiety, emotion regulation, and well-being in the midst of COVID-19.

Serological Correlates to Immunity in SARS-CoV-2 Infection

PI: Dr. Kami Kim, Morsani College of Medicine. Co-PIs: Dr. John Adams, College of Public Health, Dr. Michael Teng, Morsani College of Medicine; and Dr. Thomas Unnasch, College of Public Health.

This project is exploring the presence of SARS-CoV-2 antibodies and potential immunity using a combination of tests to determine which best detects whether a person has developed immunity to the virus or not. The research is important to determine whom among the medical staff can return to work safely because they have developed defenses against the virus, and will allow researchers to recalculate a more accurate fatality rate among the general population.

The Florida High Tech Corridor Council also is supporting the project.

Planning for Hurricane Shelter Operations During a Pandemic

PI: Dr. Jennifer Marshall, College of Public Health. Co-PIs: Dr. Elizabeth Dunn, Instructor, College of Public Health; Dr. Kelsey Merlo, Department of Psychology, College of Arts and Sciences; PhD student Blake Scott, College of Public Health; Michael Shekari, Embry Riddle Aeronautical University. USF Students/Alumni: Kayla Jones, Megan Montoya, Melanie Cruz, Ahlam Farzan, Bess Smith, Madeleine LaGoy, Adriana Campos, Mitchell Jaskela, Katrina Conen, Sinjana Kolipaka, Amanda Rivera, Carson Bell. Collaborators from Old Dominion University: Dr. Wie Yusuf, Dr. Joshua Behr, Dr. Jennifer Whytlaw and Nicole Hutton.

The pandemic wasn’t the only crisis to strike in 2020 – it coincided with what would become the most active hurricane season on record. Months before the storms started to hit, the USF research team set out to re-examine hurricane shelter operations anticipating that the close confines and communal spaces would present unprecedented challenges in the midst of a pandemic.

Dr. Kelsey Merlo, an assistant professor in the Industrial-Organizational Psychology program, said the team conducted a gap analysis and worked with shelter managers to revamp procedures to minimize transmission points. The team also worked on public messaging on the precautions being taken to ease concerns.

“There was a lot of concern that people would be too scared to come to a shelter because fear of the pandemic was competing with fear of the hurricane,” she said.

The research team developed several tools used by shelter staff, like an assessment tool and a guide that relayed the current scientific literature on infection mitigation and control, as well as guidance from federal agencies and experts.

The team also found its help was needed when it came to the volunteers who are crucial for properly staffing shelters. Researchers found volunteers with personal health concerns were less likely to work during the pandemic, so the team developed a planning guide to help shelters put “the right people in the right spots,” she said.

Researchers also were able to put a spotlight on the greater needs of those who are the frontlines of both health and weather emergencies. They found shelter staff both fearful and exhausted from the pandemic and the storm season, so they created a workshop for the Tampa Bay Health and Medical Preparedness Coalition focusing on the psychological health needs of the disaster workforce.

“What we are finding is that changing work roles and level of Covid-19 community spread is leading to more burnout among our disaster workforce,” Merlo said.

The USF Rapid-Risk Assessment and Intervention for COVID-19

PI: Dr. Usha Menon, College of Nursing. Co-PIs: Dr. Ross Andel, School of Aging Studies, College of Behavioral and Community Sciences; Dr. Ponrathi Athilingam, College of Nursing; Dr. Andrew Bugajski, College of Nursing; Dr. Javier Cuevas, Morsani College of Medicine; Dr. Ellen Daley, College of Public Health; Dr. Elizabeth Jordan, College of Nursing; Dr. Stephanie Marhefka-Day, College of Public Health; Dr. Victoria Marshall, College of Nursing; Dr. Candice Mateja, Morsani College of Medicine; Dr. Lindsay Peterson, School of Aging Studies, College of Behavioral and Community Sciences; Dr. Stephanie M. Prescott, College of Nursing; Dr. Kaitlyn Rechenberg, College of Nursing; Dr. Sudeep Sarkar, College of Engineering; Dr. Kevin Sneed, Taneja College of Pharmacy; Dr. Laura Szalacha, College of Nursing; Dr. Tracey L. Taylor, College of Nursing; Dr. Kea Turner, Moffitt Cancer Center; Dr. Susan T. Vadaparampil, Moffit Cancer Center.

Before they came to USF in 2018 from the University of Arizona, College of Nursing Dean Usha Menon and Professor Laura Szalacha led the research team that developed TIMS© (Tailored Messaging Intervention System) to increase screening and risk assessment among patients for a variety of illnesses and health challenges. TIMS© provides respondents with personally adapted feedback about their health behaviors; and researchers have found that tailored messages are more likely to be remembered and viewed as relevant by recipients.

In their USF COVID-19 seed grant project, the research team adapted the system to the pandemic to gain insights into overall human health behavior and chart how people inundated with information about their health – some accurate and some not – might navigate these unprecedented times and keep themselves healthy.

The research team recruited 1,218 people – mostly Floridians and in keeping with the of the state’s population demographics – to participate in a real-time risk assessment and messaging system. A wide variety of disciplines including Nursing, Pharmacy, Public Health, Aging, Computer Science, Education, Medicine, and the Moffitt Cancer Center contributed to developing a comprehensive library of tailored messages. Through a set of various prompts, participants shared with research scientists information about their daily habits amid the pandemic.

Participants received positive messages praising healthy habits; when answering questions that raised a concern about negative behaviors and unnecessary risk, they were directed to help. The goal, Dr. Szalacha said, is to create long-term improvements in public health through timely interventions.

The project will continue with nearly 357 participants agreeing to join their registry to be available for other health studies that will examine on-going health issues related to the pandemic.

Reposted from USF Spark Page