June 5, 2020

Adapting to Better Support Partners & Communities During the Coronavirus Pandemic

Rachel Seymour

Double exposure of a person and a medical mask

As a community-based research center, the University of Washington Health Promotion Research Center (UW HPRC) specializes in creating, testing, and disseminating vital programs, practices, and policies in collaboration with community partners.

While UW HPRC works closely with clinics that are now on the front lines of fighting the novel coronavirus, every one of our partners — from small businesses to nonprofits that serve older adults — is being affected directly or indirectly. The virus is having an impact on nearly every UW HPRC project.

We recognize that priorities for our partners have shifted, rightfully so, and we are pivoting to help them meet new needs. Where possible, we are also revamping our projects to gain new knowledge about how best to serve our communities.

We are also keenly aware that the coronavirus is having a deadly impact on the very populations we aim to support. Our goal is to improve the health and lives of older adults, including those from underserved populations and those who have underlying health conditions. All of these populations are especially vulnerable to coronavirus and the respiratory disease known as COVID-19.

Our mission, vision, and values compel us to acknowledge this and adapt the vital collaborations we have to help improve health outcomes for the most at-risk populations, now more than ever.

Cancer Prevention & Control

UW HPRC researchers have long partnered with the Washington State Department of Health and Federally Qualified Health Centers, which include 10 health systems with 78 clinics. The goal of these partnerships is to increase cancer screening rates for colorectal cancer, as well as breast and cervical cancer.

“Even from a distance, we are aware and acknowledge the work health clinics are doing during this public health crisis. We wanted to be sensitive to their current efforts, as well as supportive, so when they are ready to pivot back to cancer screening as usual, we can be right there with them to pick up where they left off.”

UW HPRC Research Scientist Thuy Vu

UW HPRC researchers are surveying Federally Qualified Health Center partners about how the coronavirus is impacting their staff, screening activities, and capacity for data collection, including tracking the backlog of patients who are due for screenings while activities are paused because of COVID-19. This information will ultimately help the state Department of Health understand how clinics are interrupting and implementing new guidelines from professional medical associations during this crisis. It will also show the scope of coronavirus’ impact across health systems and their clinics.

Older Adult Health Promotion

Social distancing is causing organizations to rethink how they provide mental health services, and this is especially true for the Program to Encourage Active, Rewarding Lives (PEARLS), a one-on-one for late-life depression care program. While UW HPRC helped develop the program and offers training and support for it, community-based organizations provided PEARLS sessions to older adults.

“As there is increased uncertainty and isolation with stay-at-home restrictions, there is an urgent need for programs and resources like PEARLS, now more than ever. At the same time, older adults are also more eager to learn new approaches and technologies for staying connected to loved ones and providers. We knew UW HPRC had to help our partners adapt and broaden access to PEARLS during this public health crisis.”

UW HPRC Research Coordinator Caitlin Mayotte

UW HPRC created tele-PEARLS guidance in collaboration with 30-40 organizations that offer PEARLS. The guidance helps organization provide PEARLS sessions for clients via phone or video conferencing. UW HPRC researchers are regularly updating the guidance based on real-time learnings from PEARLS partners. Researchers also offered an online training to be a PEARLS coach, given social distancing requirements, reaching 42 participants across 10 states. These trainings are typically held in-person.

Because PEARLS is also a central part of UW HPRC’s core research project (PEARLS Equity: Expanding Access to Depression Care for Underserved Older Adults), researchers will also be discussing tele-PEARLS with potential study participants — funders and organizations who reach underserved older adults and who may or may not currently offer PEARLS. They will be asking questions specifically about how these organizations can provide or participate in remote training for PEARLS and provide remote access to PEARLS for clients, while adhering to patient privacy laws. Researchers hope to learn how organizations that serve older adults are building rapport and engaging clients over the phone or via video conferencing, as well as if or how they are able to reduce digital divide issues among older adults.

Workplace Wellness

UW HPRC wants to understand how we can better assist employers who are struggling to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. UW HPRC previously developed the workplace wellness program known as Connect to Wellness specifically for small to midsize employers who do not always have the resources and budget to offer evidence-based programs that support healthier eating, physical activity, tobacco cessation, and cancer screening. Employees at these organizations are often at-risk for health disparities and have lower incomes.

“We want to acknowledge that the current public health crisis is affecting businesses, often severely, and this includes their workplace wellness programs. Our goal is to be responsive to new employer and employee needs, given our knowledge and expertise with both public health and workplace wellness

UW HPRC Research Scientist Kristen Hammerback

Now, UW HPRC researchers are interviewing small and midsize employers to understand how prepared businesses were for the outbreak, what protocol they had in place (if any), and what sources they view as useful or credible for future infectious disease outbreaks.

Findings from the interviews will help researchers adapt and improve Connect to Wellness materials so employers have access to the resources and support they need. Results from the interviews will also shine a light on gaps in employers’ current programs, policies, and communications related to responding to an epidemic.

Mobility Access

UW HPRC researchers are adapting plans to gather community input that will be shared with Seattle leaders around improving conditions of and access to local outdoor spaces — like neighborhood trails, sidewalks, bike lanes, and public transit — in order to improve equitable mobility and community health. To do this during COVID-19, researchers have to shift how they will connect with and collect data from community members, as well as acknowledge the new barriers community members face in accessing the outdoors safely. For example, most sidewalks are not six-feet wide, the distance recommended by the CDC during COVID-19, and not all community members have access to masks or feel comfortable wearing them because of racial discrimination.

Researchers will now rely more heavily on community partners, such as staff at Seattle Neighborhood Greenways and Beacon Hill Safe Streets, who are located directly in south Seattle to help gather input from their neighborhood residents. Researchers will also use online focus groups or video interviews to safely receive input, while also exploring how they can ensure they are being inclusive of older adults who might not be as tech savvy or people who might not have equal access to the internet.

“Before COVID-19, we planned on working with community members and organizations to negotiate and reclaim outdoor spaces to be more inclusive for people of all abilities, socio-economic statuses, and races or ethnicities. The novel coronavirus has compounded equity issues and changed the ways we can safely move through public spaces, bringing increased urgency to this project.”

UW HPRC Core Investigator Barbara Baquero

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