When COVID-19 brought the U.S. to a standstill in March 2020, faculty, staff and students across all 23 CSU campuses stepped up to combat the virus. Almost a year later, the pandemic is still very much a reality, and CSU faculty and students from across disciplines continue to do what they can to help. Here's a sampling of Cal State efforts.
Campus: San Diego State University
Project: Communities Fighting COVID, a two-fold effort in the School of Public Health to protect vulnerable communities—specifically Latino/a, African American, Arabic-speaking and Tagalog-speaking populations—from the virus through contact tracing and testing.
How it helps: The project involves two teams, with Hala Madanat, PhD, interim vice president for research and innovation and 2021 Wang Family Excellence Award recipient, and Corinne McDaniels-Davidson, PhD, director of the SDSU Institute for Public Health, leading the contact-tracing initiative—while Madanat and public health professors Susan Kiene, PhD, and Eyal Oren, PhD, head up the testing efforts.
With funding from the San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency, one team recruited public health workers who were “both linguistically and culturally concordant with the people they were serving” to augment the county’s contact-tracing efforts in these communities, Madanat explains.
The workers contact community members the county needs to trace, including some the county was unable to reach after several attempts, through phone calls and home visits.
The other team tests both the contacts and their household members for COVID-19 with research funding from the National Institutes of Health. In addition, they’ve set up pop-up testing sites in high risk areas for rapid testing of community members and are conducting confirmatory PCR lab tests in collaboration with the county to increase the communities’ testing access.
“There's a potentially high impact when you're trying to reach the people who are either lacking information, time or resources to take action on their own behalf,” Oren says. He is also working with San Diego County and state officials to conduct public health surveillance on who is likely to contract the virus, and to establish best strategies for communicating virus information to vulnerable communities as part of a larger Centers for Disease Control and Prevention initiative.
“We have an overarching goal of building a connection with the community, which we can then leverage to promote the vaccination efforts once those are ready,” Kiene says.
But the teams are also providing other resources to community members, including food provision, rental assistance, guidance on self-isolation and counseling for people who test positive.
“We're putting a lot of effort into those types of resources your traditional testing sites might not have,” Kiene says. “We recognize they are crucial in making sure people have the support they need to protect themselves and their families.”
Campus: California State University, Fresno
Project: Fresno State Transportation Institute study on the spread of COVID-19 on public transit, including how quickly the virus circulates and dissipates and which methods more effectively prevent virus spread.
How it helps: To study how the virus circulates, the research team conducted computer simulations and field tests releasing colored smoke and steam at various locations within a public bus when it was moving, stopped and had its windows opened and closed. “All of them concluded the virus would spread extremely fast and would dissipate much slower, regardless of what we did,” says Aly Tawfik, PhD, Fresno State Transportation Institute director and principal investigator.
The team then employed three live viruses—similar in structure and/or size to the COVID-19 virus, but harmless to humans—to test methods for preventing virus transmission in the air and on surfaces. “We wanted to find a solution that is effective in mitigating the virus but is also economically feasible so different transit agencies could implement them without the huge financial burden,” Tawfik explains.
After testing in the lab and the field, photocatalytic oxidation inserts and UV-C lights installed in the HVAC system most effectively cleaned the air. At the same time, maintaining a positive pressure inside the bus eliminated almost all viruses from surfaces. Copper foil tape or copper-infused fabrics also effectively combatted the virus most similar to the coronavirus. The team is now conducting follow-up tests on the safety of the photocatalytic oxidation inserts.
“We think it's important for transit agencies to know there are economically feasible solutions that could protect the drivers as well as their passengers, especially because transit agencies are suffering significantly right now because of loss of ridership,” Tawfik says.
Campus: California State University, Fullerton
Project: Mathematical and statistical models that predict the spread of COVID-19 through California counties and determine actions that diminish contraction.
How it helps: These models are products of a coordinated effort by Center for Computational and Applied Mathematics (CCAM) faculty Derdei Bichara, PhD, assistant professor of mathematics, whose research focuses on mathematical modeling of infectious diseases, and Sam Behseta, PhD, statistician, mathematics professor and CCAM director—along with their student teams.
“The mathematical framework allows us to see things from a theoretical standpoint, but the statistical standpoint also gives us a lot of empirical observations,” Bichara says. “We have a good set of data for COVID-19, so we want to use that to see how our prediction from the theoretical standpoint matches with the trend from the statistical models.”
When developing his mathematical and machine learning models, Bichara incorporates factors that affect the disease’s spread, such as the latency period during which individuals are contagious, travel and interactions outside the home, public health orders and personal behaviors like mask wearing and hand washing. His models can be updated as people’s behaviors and public health measures change. “We want to study and incorporate not only the disease itself, but also the human behavioral aspect of the phenomenon,” Bichara says.
For the statistical models, Behseta analyzed current data around people’s travel (from Apple or Google, for example), COVID-19 case numbers and geography, determining which factors would contribute to higher case rates. His main findings showed economically challenged counties saw higher case numbers due to their residents’ need to leave the home, Behseta explains.
“If everybody in the ideal world could sit at home and not interact with anybody else, the disease would not spread as fast,” he says. “But people have to work. People have to go to the grocery store. And while there are shelter-in-place and other policies that local and federal governments can impose upon the citizens, unfortunately not everybody's going to abide by that.”
Ultimately, these models can help public health officials make decisions around restrictions to effectively prevent the further spread of COVID-19.
“Our hope is to give an unbiased study of how this pandemic is evolving and particularly how to mitigate it,” Bichara says. “And we hope it gives the general public and the policy makers a glimpse of how much mathematics could also help combat against this disease.”
Campus: California State University, East Bay
Project: COVID ID, a mobile phone application that detects four safety factors in public spaces—mask wearing, crowd density, social distancing and fever indicators—using computer vision and machine learning.
How it helps: Currently an open source application for Android phones, the app helps individuals protect themselves from the virus as they head out into public.
“The idea behind it is … health situation awareness, understanding your environment around you,” says Lynne Grewe, PhD, professor of computer science who led the student development team. “The common person can decide where they want to go or, within even an area, if it's safe to go into a particular area.”
Individuals already in public can scan their environment with the app to determine the safest spaces around them based on those four factors, for example choosing which line to wait in at the grocery store. However, detecting instances of fever does require an infrared camera that connects to the mobile device. In addition, the app’s map interface collects the real-time information so other users can see how safe a location is before they arrive.
“There's also a tracking module that'll let you visualize the area around you,” explains recent bachelor’s graduate Emmanuel Gallegos. “So, somebody could be walking through campus and say, ‘Oh, I'm going to go this way because farther up ahead there's a crowd of people.’”
Under Grewe’s direction, the app was developed by CSUEB graduate students Subhangi Asati, Shivali Choudhary, Divya Gupta, Maithri House, Cemil Kes, Buhmit Patel, Kunjkumar Patel, Dikshant Pravin Jain and Manasi Rajiv Weginwar; CSUEB undergraduates Emanuel Gallegos and Jamie Ngyuen; California State University, Dominguez Hills undergrad Phillip Aguilera; Santa Clara University undergrad Allen Shahshahani and high school student Jake Shahshahani.
Campus: California State University Channel Islands
Project: A survey to understand and predict people’s support for public health measures and policies, such as vaccination, social distancing and international travel restrictions.
How it helps: Nien-Tsu Nancy Chen, PhD, associate professor of communication, conducted her surveys in March and May 2020 and found the greatest predictors of people’s support for most public health measures are the perceived severity of the disease, personal vulnerability to the disease, benefits of public health measures and restrictions and costs of adopting prevention behaviors.
Her survey was unique in its look at support for restrictions on international travelers entering the United States. For this measure, one of the greatest predictors was trust in authorities, including the U.S. president, international organizations and the Chinese government.
This means “when it comes to an international public health crisis, we should look beyond domestic authorities to how much people trust external authorities, such as foreign governments and international organizations that all have a stake in the successful management and handling of this crisis,” Chen says.
Her findings particularly demonstrate how to best communicate safety measures needed or how to persuade individuals to adhere to those measures.
“This is not about politics; it's really about public health and human lives,” she says. “I think the transparency in communication and making the information accessible in everyday language is so important. There's a lot of scientific documents you can find from the FDA website, but [translating] that scientific information into something that's easily understood by the public so they can digest it and then trust the information and the scientific process is really important.”
While her findings aligned with many other surveys, Chen still wants to validate her results with a nationally representative sample and update the survey as perceptions shift. She’ll be using her upcoming sabbatical to conduct further cross-cultural research on people’s response to COVID-19.