Research Center Studying How Local Environments Influence COVID-19 Mortality

By Tom McLaughlin

Throughout the spring, the COVID-19 pandemic spread exponentially in New Jersey.

As the coronavirus remains an invisible threat, Rutgers University researchers note that maps depicting the prevalence of COVID-19 across states, regions, and the world now demonstrate how people’s risk of becoming infected depends, in part, on their geo-spatial positions.

But just how do local place-based communities contribute to a person’s chances of dying from COVID-19?

Sarah Allred

The answer to that critical question will soon become clearer, thanks to a new research project from the Senator Walter Rand Institute for Public Affairs at Rutgers University–Camden, in collaboration with the Graduate School of Social Work at Rutgers University–New Brunswick.

“The metaphor ‘We are in the same storm, but not in the same boat’ sums it up. While the COVID-19 pandemic is global, individuals experience it in different ways and to varying degrees,” says Sarah Allred, an associate professor of psychology and faculty director at the Rand Institute, who will lead the study with Emily Greenfield, an associate professor of social work at Rutgers University.

The study, running July 1 through Dec. 31, 2020, is funded by an $18,425 grant from the Center for COVID-19 Response and Pandemic Preparedness at Rutgers University. Guided by multidisciplinary research on neighborhoods, social inequalities, and health, the project will address the influence of local environments on COVID-19 mortality by examining trends across municipalities and counties in New Jersey during the early months – March to May 2020 – of the outbreak.

Emily Greenfield

Allred and Greenfield aim to estimate county and municipal effects, as well as identify municipal-level risk factors, on COVID-19 mortality. Beyond a focus on risk factors, the researchers are especially interested in identifying place-based communities and regions whose population health is better than expected at distinct points in the outbreak over the coming year(s) and systematically examining what accounts for their comparative advantage. They will focus specifically on protective factors associated with greater social connectivity, such as greater Internet connectivity and percentage of registered voters who voted in local races.

“Findings from this study will be immediately useful for decision-makers at the local, state, and national levels,” says Greenfield, noting that a recent funding opportunity from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services calls for the development of a strategic network to deliver information to socially vulnerable communities hardest hit by the pandemic. “Research findings that more clearly specify what constitutes social vulnerability and resilience at the community level can help to guide such efforts.”

They hope that, by understanding municipal and county effects on COVID-19 population-health outcomes and exploring protective factors, the project will help guide New Jersey policymakers thinking about allocating resources as the state recovers from the first wave of the pandemic and prepares for the possibility of additional waves.

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