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NSF RAPID grants support engineering research on pandemic for better future solutions

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Covid-19 Vaccination. Asian Male Patient Getting Vaccinated Against Coronavirus Receiving Covid Vaccine Intramuscular Injection During Doctor's Appointment In Hospital. Corona Virus Immunization

During real-time crises, real-time research helps inform responses to ongoing issues while preparing society for future crises.

Faculty members in the College of Engineering are principal investigators (PIs) or co-PIs on three Rapid Response Research (RAPID) grants awarded in 2020 by the National Science Foundation (NSF) focused on hospital surges, vaccine distribution and the well-being of college students during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s great that NSF provides these RAPID grants as it allows us to react quickly without missing opportunities to collect valuable data,” said Maria Mayorga, a professor in the Edward P. Fitts Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering (ISE) and a co-PI for two of the grants. “It also allows us to form an interdisciplinary team and lets us think outside of the box while showing that engineers’ work has larger societal impacts.”

All but one of the PIs and co-PIs on these grants are faculty members in ISE: Osman Ozaltin, associate professor; Julie Ivy, professor and Fitts Faculty Fellow in Health Systems Engineering; Julie Swann, department head and A. Doug Allison Distinguished Professor; Leila Hajibabai, assistant professor; and Mayorga. Ali Hajbabaie, an assistant professor in the Department of Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering (CCEE), is working with ISE on one of the grants, as are NC State graduate students and faculty members from other universities.

Analyzing current hospital surges

Ozaltin, Ivy and Mayorga are leading efforts to document how COVID-19 is influencing patient admission patterns and outcomes, and overall hospital operations. The grant, “Documenting Hospital Surge Operations in Responding to the COVID-19 Pandemic,” wrapped up in April.

Researchers are collecting data — including patient medical records, pre-pandemic planning guidelines and operational factors like staffing and equipment availability — from two major hospital systems: Samaritan Health Services in Oregon and MedStar Health System in Washington, D.C.

With a surge in infectious and critically ill patients, COVID-19 caused a nationwide shift in hospital system operations, including delaying non-emergency and elective surgeries while still aiding patients with severe injuries and illnesses.

“We’re seeing long-term impacts on patient care and preventative services, both from the initial stoppage of services, and then people not resuming usual levels of care as the COVID-19 pandemic continued,” Mayorga said.

Mayorga sees potential to improve hospital systems’ responses to mass casualty events by documenting observable best practices.

“Most hospital surge capacity planning focused on natural disasters or terrorist threat, with the assumption that you could seek help from outside,” she said. “With something of this scale, we want to make sure patients are not left behind.”

Vaccine distribution data provides vital resource

For the grant “Collection and Archiving of Vital Data on COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution,” Hajbabaie in CCEE has been working with Swann and Hajibabai since last year to collect and eventually distribute data regarding vaccine distribution and administration to help health systems plan effective responses to future emergent events and other large-scale disasters.

Student researchers include Kuangying Li, an operations research Ph.D. candidate; Asya Atik, a civil engineering Ph.D. candidate; and Dayang Zheng, a senior industrial engineering and computer programming dual major.

This data — which includes vaccine allocation, distribution, shipment, inventory and administration — is being organized in an online vaccination portal that analyzes trends influencing public health efforts across different communities in different states. Researchers are observing performance factors such as the rate of vaccine spoilage and access related to gender or race and ethnicity.

Researchers first collected data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, then from 14 state public health departments across the nation, with 10 additional states being targeted for future data collection. The grant ends in May.

“Vaccine distribution priorities and policies at each state can influence the efficiency of the vaccine distribution infrastructure,” Hajbabaie said.

Societal impacts of COVID-19 at universities

Ivy, along with Swann; Mayorga; Harriet Nembhard, dean of the College of Engineering at the University of Iowa; and Lauren Berrings Davis, professor of industrial and systems engineering at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, are looking at student well-being.

Their research looks at students who may struggle with hunger and housing insecurity, or behavioral or mental health issues.

Under the grant “Collaborative Research RAPID: Matriculation and Well-Being Under Emergent Events (MWEE): Using Data to Empower Campus Communities in Times of Crisis,” which ends in July, they are collecting data from publicly released information and student surveys from NC State, NC A&T, Duke University and the University of Iowa.

More than 150 engineering undergraduate students — who were selected as the focus demographic due to the hands-on work and difficulty of their degree programs — have participated over the course of four semesters, starting in fall 2020.

It’s great that NSF provides these RAPID grants as it allows us to react quickly without missing opportunities to collect valuable data.

Researchers are focusing on emotional well-being, social support, life satisfaction and if students feel their needs are being met, while also accounting for university COVID-19 policies.

“We’re observing how well-being over the course of the semester is influenced by COVID-19 as it further influences policy changes that significantly affect students,” said Danika Dorris, a Ph.D. student in health systems engineering and student researcher in ISE.

Other institutions will be able to use the data to compare to their own campuses’ data and make plans for responding to future emergent events in order to predict the retention and graduation rates of students.

“We need to create an awareness of the downstream effects our policies have,” Mayorga said. “We have to make sure there is something in place for our most vulnerable students.”