Some may say the past year has been one giant global experiment. While scientists and researchers didn’t create the coronavirus, the pandemic has spurred opportunities for investigations that run the gamut of public-service efforts and response. Here are just a few ways experts at UCF as using their insight to enhance what we’ve learned and are still learning from this dynamic time.

Contributing to the CDC’s Predications

In March 2020, five UCF researchers began using artificial intelligence and deep-learning models to generate infection-rate predictions in Florida. After months of calculating these numbers, the team expanded its predictions nationally to become contributors to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID-19 Ensemble Forecast team.

UCF’s researchers Shunpu Zhang, professor and chair of the Department of Statistics and Data Science; Liqiang Wang, associate professor of computer science; Dongdong Wang, computer science doctoral student; Zihang Zou, computer science doctoral student; and Timothy Sumner, statistics and data science master’s student, expanded their predictions nationally to become contributors for the CDC.

While the organization averages the numbers provided by all of its voluntary contributors, the UCF researchers have made a consistent impact.

“Not only are we reliable in our contribution, we are also reliable in our predictions because our numbers have been used every time.” — Shunpu Zhang, UCF professor

“Some teams only contribute for a period of time, but we have been providing predictions for them every week since last November,” says Zhang, who previously conducted models for a contagious avian flu virus. “Not only are we reliable in our contribution, we are also reliable in our predictions because our numbers have been used every time. This means a great deal to us because it tells us that we are doing something right.”

Using an older epidemiological model with newer machine-learning techniques, the researchers provide estimates at state and national levels for increases in weekly cases, increases in weekly deaths, hospitalizations, and total cumulative deaths.

“Our own model well matches the CDC’s ensemble model, which is the summary of all models collected by the CDC,” Liqiang Wang says. “This verifies that our model is one of the most accurate models in this area.”

More recently, the UCF team—which made it to the finals of a global pandemic response challenge earlier this year—has also been focused on assessing the effectiveness of government isolation measures on deaths, hospitalizations and economic output caused by COVID-19. They plan to continue contributing to the CDC’s reports, as well as conduct more research on other questions related to COVID-19.

“Any work that is recognized all over the world and is used by powerful decision makers is always a humbling experience,” Zhang says. “We plan on publishing more work on the subject before the year is up, and we are looking forward to the attention that might bring to UCF as well.”

Archiving the Nation’s COVID Response

While most people have dealt with COVID fatigue at some point in the pandemic, health management and informatics Professor Lynn Unruh and Assistant Professor Andriy Koval have had to push through this feeling for the past year to perform their work for the World Health Organization’s System Response Monitor U.S. team for COVID-19 data collection.

“Our assignment is to collect data regarding how the U.S. was preventing transmission of the coronavirus, ensuring sufficient physical infrastructure and workforce capacity, providing health services effectively, paying for services and governance,” says Unruh, lead investigator for the HSRM team and who has contributed to the WHO’s Health Systems in Transition series for nearly 10 years. “This data can be used to chronicle and analyze a country’s response, and to compare responses across countries.”

To collect this information, the team analyzes official reports from the White House, press releases, and official documents from state governors and governmental agencies, such as the CDC. They also read reputable journals to track the country’s policy measures and responses to the coronavirus pandemic, as well as stay up to date on major news reports.

The HSRM team also overcame challenges with political sensitivities to produce its reports, which contextualize the data through a narrative reviewed by the European Observatory and the WHO before it’s shared online.

“Having a record like this allows for a more efficient response to other pandemics, as we think this is not the last pandemic of our lives as travel increases and the global community grows.” — Andriy Koval, UCF Assistant Professor

“I learned how politically sensitive reporting health data is, which was a big surprise to me,” says Koval, whose expertise is in statistics. “Even in just reporting numbers, we still had to be careful that our word choices around them could not be interpreted as a criticism of the current administration but more as a statement of fact.”

But the data itself did present some political considerations, as Unruh says the HSRM team, and others, found governments in Democratic-leaning states tended to have stricter transmission-prevention measures than Republican-leaning states.

“The populations in the blue states were less likely to take issue with wearing masks and other prevention measures,” Unruh says. “With the exception of the initial months of the pandemic, blue states also tended to have less cases and deaths.” Aside from their WHO reports, the HSRM team has published a paper on the U.S. response to COVID-19 through November 2020 and has another paper comparing the nation’s response to Canada, Ireland and the United Kingdom under review. But the true value of Unruh and Koval’s work is still to come.

“Having a record like this allows for a more efficient response to other pandemics, as we think this is not the last pandemic of our lives as travel increases and the global community grows,” Koval says.

Examining Crucial COVID Communication

While the pandemic has provided many lessons in nearly all aspects of life, communication is one of the most crucial areas to reflect on. Helping to guide how public agencies can better communicate about crises is Deanna and Timothy Sellnow, two professors from the Nicholson School of Communication and Media who have served as consultants for the CDC since the early 2000s.

“The philosophy we work under is the right words at the right time can save lives,” Timothy Sellnow says. “We’ve been able to see firsthand how organizations and industries are taking this pandemic more seriously and are making substantial changes that we wouldn’t have the motivation to undertake if it weren’t for something like this. But bear in mind, one life lost is too many.”

The couple has spent their careers advancing strategic communication, specifically around risk and crisis events and often in tandem, on national and international levels. Through the years, the two have helped the CDC build its pandemic plan, conducted pandemic/influenza training throughout the country on its behalf, and recently created a specific communication model to help with these events.

“The philosophy we work under is the right words at the right time can save lives.” — Timothy Sellnow, UCF professor

Using years of studies, the couple has created the IDEA model to help the CDC — as well as other organizations and individuals who are not communication specialists — remember factors that are essential to effective communication. It includes four steps: Internalization, considering motivation for the audience’s ability to realize the potential impact on them or those they care about; Distribution, using convergent messages sent across various channels; Explanation, providing information about what is happening and how it’s being dealt with in a way that most people can understand; and action, providing clear actionable items that people can take to protect themselves and their loved ones.

Sellnow was also recently appointed as an external expert in risk communication on an advisory panel for the WHO, which received criticisms and accusations of being biased or not fully transparent during the pandemic. This panel is evaluating the organizations response and communication methods.

“We’ve also been looking at the image repair the WHO has to go through once they’ve faced these kinds of accusations — warranted or not, they still have to respond,” he says. “Even our most important organizations, healthcare industries, have an image, and that image affects credibility, and that credibility affects the actions people take to protect themselves.”

Through the IDEA model and other work, the Sellnows emphasize the importance of not only sharing what is known but what isn’t and what is being done to obtain that information. They also stress that it’s crucial for public agencies to collaborate and make an effort not to put contradictory messages, as well as prioritize the need for action.

“Rebuilding credibility and trust [during or after a crisis] is a much harder challenge than establishing credibility and trustworthiness in the quiet times prior to crisis,” Deanna Sellnow says. “Some of credibility that was lost early on [in the pandemic] because of the miscommunication that happened and competing disinformation that happened, we’re still not recovered, quite frankly.”

Tracking the Rise of Domestic Violence

Catherine “Katie” Kaukinen, professor and chair of UCF’s criminal justice department, serves on the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice, which recently released a report that domestic violence incidents in the U.S. increased by 8.1% after lockdowns began last year.

The findings were based on logs of police calls for service, domestic-violence crime reports, emergency-hotline registries, health records and other administrative documents.

Kaukinen, who is also the co-lead of UCF’s Violence Against Women faculty cluster, says domestic violence is an underreported crime, so it’s likely the number of individuals who have experienced it during the pandemic are even higher. Unemployment, alcohol and drug use, childcare responsibilities, and financial insecurity are fairly well-established factors associated with domestic violence, Kaukinen says. The NCCCJ team, led by University of Miami and Monash University professor Alex R. Piquero, thinks these issues were exasperated after lockdowns began in early 2020.

“We know the isolation surrounding the lockdown and stay-at-home orders, as well as children not being in school and remote schooling have led to a lot of stress in marital relationships, and it also has forced couples to be together many more hours in a day,” she says. “Those who may have already had violence, during the isolation we’ve limited their access to support networks, family and friends. The pandemic might have also led some men to increase their control of their spouse because they are at home more often.”

“How we move forward in whatever our new normal is will be important because some of the damage that has been done is irreparable.” — Catherine “Katie” Kaukinen, UCF professor

Kaukinen and Piquero have already published one paper, which aims to estimate the effects of COVID-19 related restrictions on reported acts of domestic violence, based on their findings from this report.

“I think we’re going to see long-term [mental health] impacts on women and children after the pandemic that are not just related to domestic violence,” she says. “How we move forward in whatever our new normal is will be important because some of the damage that has been done is irreparable.”

But when it comes to domestic violence, Kaukinen says solving this problem requires the same approach as any other time: preventing and reducing cases through resources such as organization and social workers that work with police, shelters, and other services — there just needs to be an increase of supply to fulfill the demand.

“We need a bigger roundtable with mental health, substance use, criminal justice, sociology for older adults, and other health-related perspectives to figure out what’s next, which I think would require a holistic approach,” Kaukinen says. “Domestic violence is a pandemic even outside of COVID, so to have this type of attention on the issue is really going to be game changing for women and children.”

Fellow College of Community Innovation and Education faculty member Claire Knox, an associate professor of public administration, has recently joined the American Society for Public Administration to examine the effects of COVID-19 on the industry. To see how other UCF faculty and staff have provided expert insight during the pandemic, visit this article.