Collaboration of ETSU colleges results in new COVID research

Members of the SEMG Lab team from ETSU include (from left-right) Dr. Ingrid Luffman, Dr. Andrew Joyner, William Tollefson and Dr. Megan Quinn.

As a result of an extensive, ongoing collaboration between three East Tennessee State University colleges, which has resulted in creation of a new research lab at the school, the ETSU Spatial Epidemiology and Medical Geography (SEMG) Lab has had its first COVID-19 research paper published in the Journal of Appalachian Health with a second expected to publish this month.

Part of a major interdisciplinary alliance between the College of Arts and Sciences Department of Geosciences/Geoinformatics and Disaster Science (GADS) Lab, the College of Public Health Department of Biostatistics and Epidemiology, and Quillen College of Medicine Department of Family Medicine, along with former ETSU Emergency Management Specialist Andrew Worley, the unique partnership was necessary for this type of project, according to Dr. Andrew Joyner, associate professor and GADS lab director.

“The lab was initially formed to focus on pandemic-related research across disciplines, but we expect to expand beyond pandemic-related research and explore other health-geography topics, such as access to health care; socio-demographic disparities, especially in rural areas impacting health; water quality and health issues; and vector disease modeling (e.g., tick-borne, mosquito-borne, etc.),” said Joyner. “It’s the intersection of health and geography, and since we have one of the few public health colleges in the state, this (new lab) is a logical thing to emerge from our collaboration.”

Joyner also pointed out that the team was able to examine the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic through multiple perspectives, such as spatial, temporal, public health/rural health and epidemiology impacts, by applying different methods and skill sets. Publication of the findings, he added, has provided a model for tracking and disseminating information about the spread of COVID-19 during the early stages of the pandemic, from March through June 2020, in a mostly rural area that spans three states, in which baseline access to care is relatively low.

“A Geographic Information Systems (GIS) dashboard was also built, the first publicly available for the Central Blue Ridge region, and data were used to conduct descriptive and geospatial cluster analyses to examine case incidence and fatalities over space and time,” he said. “We were able to describe and disseminate information about COVID-19 case incidence and fatalities to a large audience and identify acute and prolonged local outbreaks. This study lays the groundwork both for the continued tracking of COVID-19 and of similar viruses that involve collection of data from multiple sources.”

In addition to Joyner, the authors affiliated with the Journal of Appalachian Health article, titled “Emergence of COVID-19 and Patterns of Early Transmission in an Appalachian Sub-Region,” include Dr. Abbey Mann, Lafayette College (formerly of the Quillen College of Medicine); Dr. Ingrid Luffman, assistant professor, and William Tollefson, lecturer, ETSU Department of Geosciences; Dr. Megan Quinn, associate professor, ETSU Department of Biosciences and Epidemiology; and Ashley Frazier, assistant professor, Division of Natural Sciences, Walters State Community College.


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