College of Science and Health > About > 10th Anniversary > CSH COVID-19 Symposium

Symposium Highlights Faculty’s Interdisciplinary Response to COVID-19 Pandemic

​The College of Science and Health (CSH) kicked off its 10th anniversary events series on March 10 with “What Must Be Done? Learning From the COVID-19 Pandemic to Strengthen Our Future,” an online symposium presented to the DePaul University community and free to the public.

An interdisciplinary panel of CSH faculty shared expert responses to the pandemic, including vaccination analyses, nationwide studies benefiting disproportionately stressed professions and populations, and personal protective equipment for under-resourced K-12 school districts.

Doug Bruce, Ph.D., Chair and Associate Professor of Health Sciences, moderated the panel. CSH Dean Stephanie Dance-Barnes, Ph.D., DePaul President A. Gabriel Esteban, Ph.D., and DePaul Interim Provost Salma Ghanem, Ph.D., provided additional remarks.

Watch a video of the symposium on CSH’s YouTube channel.

Excerpts from faculty presenters follow.

Sarah Connolly, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Health Sciences

“Going so quickly from discovering the virus to having vaccines that work so well is mind-boggling. But a lot of background research was done after SARS on other coronaviruses, spike proteins and using mRNA as a vaccine, so scientists were ready.

“The fear is that this virus will continue to change and we’ll have to keep chasing it with vaccines, but that may not be the case. The virus has only had a year to pick up mutations, adapt and spread in humans. It’s possible it will reach a pinnacle and just stay there. We haven’t seen a variant that requires us to make a new vaccine yet.

“It isn’t hard for Moderna, for instance, to make a vaccine against the B.1.1.7, the one from the U.K., just by changing a few letters in their vaccine technology. We’ll be prepared if we need to give boosters for a variant, but I still have hope this virus can be taken care of just by vaccinating a large percentage of our population.”

Desale Habtzghi, Associate Professor, Mathematical Sciences

“Vaccine efficacy and effectiveness are not the same thing. Efficacy, or relative risk, is defined as a performance of the vaccine under a controlled situation like a clinical trial. An efficacy trial can often overestimate an intervention’s effect when implemented in clinical practice.

“Effectiveness is the performance of the vaccine under real-world conditions, which could be affected by variables like storing a vaccine at the wrong temperature, virus variants or having an unskilled practitioner vaccinate you. No vaccine is 100% effective.

“People see a number, like Pfizer’s 95% vaccine efficacy, and think 95% of the people are protected from disease with the vaccine. It’s not like that, but it is an astonishing result. What it means is those who took the vaccine had a 95% reduction in risk of having symptomatic COVID-19 infection compared to those who did not take the vaccine. The real vaccine efficacy for Pfizer is somewhere between 90% to 97%, a range we call a credible or confidence interval.”

Anne Saw, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Psychology

“U.S. Rep. Karen Bass came up with the idea of doing a needs assessment to drive policy-making around COVID-19 relief. Researchers were asked to form teams representing our communities, in my case Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders. Our work has a direct line to policymakers who can bring change to communities of color the pandemic has disproportionately impacted.

“We’re surveying 6,300 individuals across the country to ask about economic impact, job loss, housing and food security, educational disruption, access to health care, mental health status and rising anti-Asian racism. We’re following up with 1,400 respondents to the Stop AAPI Hate incident-reporting portal.

“Asian Americans have the highest joblessness rates during the pandemic. Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders have higher infection and death rates than Black and Latinx Americans. Because their populations are small and not spread across the U.S., they’re not covered by the media, and public health departments haven’t adequately documented rates. COVID is highlighting long-standing disparities.”

Shannon Simonovich, Ph.D., and Kashica Webber-Ritchey, Ph.D., Assistant Professors, Nursing

“In our large-scale qualitative research study, we interviewed 100 nurses across the country during the pandemic’s first wave. The purpose was to capture the nursing experience, advocate for nurses’ needs and make working as a nurse safer. Our colleagues on the front lines were feeling overwhelmed, experiencing fear, and felt unprepared to care for COVID-positive patients. The study was funded by Zeta Sigma Chapter of Sigma Theta Tau International, Illinois Nurses Foundation and the College of Science and Health and School of Nursing.

“We tried to match each with a nurse interviewer who worked in a similar clinical background and shared a racial or ethnic background. Our team includes 14 doctorally prepared nurses and 10 graduate and undergraduate research assistants.

“Communication was the biggest takeaway. You can adapt to changing protocols, policies and supplies if you feel you have appropriate communication and support. We also talked about moral distress. Every single nurse said they’d cope with it later, but you can only put off fear, frustration, powerlessness and guilt for so long.

“We’re sharing our findings in the International Nursing Review’s special issue on COVID-19  and with institutions worldwide, including virtually during Sigma Theta Tau’s 32nd International Nursing Research Congress in July 2021.”

Eric Landahl, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Physics

“Our Illinois PPE Network is providing health care providers at COVID-19 vaccination sites with antifog goggles our makers designed.

“We’re also helping elementary schools reopen by installing plastic barriers between seats in school buses, especially in places where that’s the only way kids get to school. We’ve been working with underserved and hard-hit populations.

“We just finished outfitting the 175-bus fleet for the Menominee Nation’s elementary students in Wisconsin to bring them in line with CDC guidelines. The schools provide a huge amount of social services in those communities. The Nation was concerned because a professional job on each bus costs $5,000 to $10,000. Acrylic plexiglass is in demand and expensive. We devised a solution using thinner plastic donated by Coca-Cola and other donors. We’re also contacting school districts in Illinois, hoping to do more and get more raw material.”