While medical professionals around the world race to find solutions to our global pandemic — solutions that will eventually stop the spread of COVID-19 — a study led by behavioral epidemiologist, Katie Loth, PhD, MPH, RD, who is an assistant professor in the University of Minnesota Medical School’s Department of Family Medicine and Community Health, is thinking about how we can best support vulnerable families now. 

“Initially, when the COVID-19 pandemic first emerged, there was, understandably, a huge focus on what we could do to stop the spread. This thinking continues to be crucial. But, from a public health perspective, we also need to explore how the policies we are putting into place to stop the spread are impacting our most vulnerable populations,” Dr. Loth said. “We need to do our best to make sure that the policies we embrace are not further contributing to the challenges faced by families.”

With this in mind, Dr. Loth applied for and received a CO:VID (Collaborative Outcomes: Visionary Innovation & Discovery) grant in March. This grant allowed Dr. Loth to begin studying how the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the lives of a cohort of 80 families who live in the Twin Cities and were intentionally recruited to represent a diverse range of backgrounds and experiences. Exploring these questions within a racially and socioeconomically diverse cohort of families is key, according to Dr. Loth, as her study seeks to understand how various family-level characteristics, such as household structure or socioeconomic status, might impact a family’s ability to navigate the various challenges brought on by the pandemic.

The 80 families that Dr. Loth is working with for this study are part of a much larger cohort of young people that have been followed since 2010 by a team of researchers from the U of M School of Public Health. Dr. Loth had collected data from a group of families within this cohort in the fall of 2019, and when the COVID-19 pandemic emerged shortly thereafter, Dr. Loth was inspired to reach out to these families again to understand how they were navigating the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Dr. Loth said, “Having known these families for so long, I was able to really dig in and understand how they had been impacted by COVID-19. But, also, given how much data we have on their adolescence and emerging adulthood, I am uniquely positioned to understand if there are families who are better set-up to navigate these challenges and if there are families that are more likely to struggle.”

Dr. Loth is collecting data on these families through the use of online surveys, remote interviews and “ecological momentary assessments,” or short surveys delivered to participants throughout the day on their cell phones. She asks them questions like, “What challenges has your family faced today?” or “What resources have been available to you?” and “What resources do you need, but are lacking?” Based on that data, Dr. Loth developed a high-level policy brief that suggests next steps for policymakers and public health advocates on ways to improve community health, especially for the most vulnerable families.

“One thing we are trying to be incredibly mindful of is exactly what we are doing with the information we are gathering from families.” Dr. Loth said. “We are not taking the typical research approach, which is to publish first and then share it more widely. Instead, we really want to focus on getting the data we have collected out to the public as fast as we can. This is information that everyone needs to — deserves to — access as soon as possible.”

Download the high-level brief about their research results here. Dr. Loth says more information will be shared in the coming weeks as the team continues to analyze the data.