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Clinical and Translational Science Institute training program scholars collaborate on COVID-19 messaging study

A team of researchers including Dr. Jessica Ericson, Oluwamuyiwa “Winnie” Adebayo, PhD, Dr. Catharine Paules and Dr. Patrick Gavigan are evaluating the public’s knowledge and acceptance of health messaging related to COVID-19, such as social distancing and stay-at-home orders.

The research team wants to understand better how the public processes, interprets and ultimately responds to this health information. As the development of the novel coronavirus pandemic continues, so does public health messaging. It is important to understand which messages are accurate and informative and which are causing unnecessary anxiety.

This project is a collaboration between Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center physicians and Penn State College of Nursing. Ericson, a pediatric infectious disease specialist and the study principal investigator, and Adebayo, an assistant professor of nursing, are both scholars in Penn State Clinical and Translational Science Institute’s Early-Stage Investigator Training Program (KL2). The collaboration formed through the training program.

“The collaboration is entirely a result of the Early-Stage Investigator Training Program,” Ericson said. “It’s how I learned about Winnie and her relevant expertise. She has expertise in why people choose to undergo testing for infectious diseases and I thought it was a good fit for my research idea.”

Each member of the team brings their own set of professional experience that strengthen the collaboration. Adebayo specializes in sexually transmitted infection testing and changes in people’s behavior with seeking testing.

“I bring that expectation to the project and understanding how public health messaging encourages people’s behavior,” said Adebayo. “I also bring the qualitative pieces to the study, which is the web survey and open-ended questions that we analyze, using qualitative analysis techniques.”

With seed grant funding provided through the Social Sciences Research Institute and the Huck Institutes for the Life Sciences, the research team will give questionnaires to individuals admitted with a positive COVID-19 test result or flu-like symptoms, or who are presently seeking COVID-19 testing at any mobile testing unit, emergency department, outpatient clinic, or inpatient admission at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center.

Researchers designed the questionnaire to understand an individual’s perception of public health messaging — such as if the person agrees with the messaging, the reasoning behind those beliefs and the person’s ability to comply with the messages. The survey also collects demographics, medical conditions, recent travel history, social history, household status, symptoms, and what led the person to want COVID-19 testing.

“I recognize that people who are not technical, who are not scientifically minded, who are inclined to misbelieve scientists or the government or both, may have a different opinion about what we’ve been saying,” Ericson said. “If that’s the case, then I’m interested in improving how we talk to those groups of people so that they come away with an understanding of what they need to do and why it’s important.”

The researchers believe that the research will show that those who tested COVID-19 negative would adhere to the social distancing recommendations more than those who tested positive.

According to the researchers, understanding what factors differentiate the two groups will help identify further subgroups that do not respond appropriately to health messaging. Identifying the factors that influence peoples’ adherence to messaging will allow for better tailored public health messaging if COVID-19 continues longer than expected or that a recurrent outbreak of COVID-19 occurs.

“The chances that we’re going to have an infectious disease, like this outbreak, again is not unlikely,” Adebayo said. “It is possible. It happens and there is a chance that it is going to happen again. This would help us prepare for subsequent outbreaks in the future that are unrelated to COVID-19.”

The Early-Stage Investigator Training Program (KL2) provides a supportive interdisciplinary environment for scholars to acquire the skills and experience needed to become successful, independent clinical and translational scientists. The program offers course work, mentored research and career development programs. The program funding provides 75 percent protected time for research, funds for research supplies, tuition support for up to three courses per semester, and travel.

“The Early-State Investigator Training Program provides a unique place for mentorship and training as researchers that will help us address healthcare needs,” Adebayo said. “Even more importantly, it has created a space to launch collaborative research relationships that we can continue beyond the program. I am happy to be working with Dr. Jessica Ericson and the team of researchers and I’m excited about what our work will contribute to understanding and structuring public health messaging around pandemics and global infectious disease crises.”

Read more about Penn State COVID-19 projects here.

Gavigan is an assistant professor of pediatrics and Paules is an assistant professor of medicine. Both are infectious disease specialists.

This story is adapted from a Penn State News story written by Morgan McAfee, Penn State College of Nursing.

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