Students Strengthen Community Ties to Combat Disparate COVID-19 Impact

Students and faculty partner with communities to examine existing health inequities and experience of COVID-19

June 12, 2020

New York City has been one of the areas hardest hit by COVID-19—and nowhere more so than in communities of color made vulnerable by decades of disinvestment in health, social, and economic services, and structural racism. This summer, graduate students and faculty at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health are working to bolster ties with these communities to assess their strengths and needs and to offer support, including by developing tools to identify reliable information on how to be healthy and safe during the pandemic and beyond.

Nationally, the risk of COVID-19 mortality in the Black population is 3.57 times that of the white population. Similarly, the risk of COVID-19 mortality in the Latinx population is 1.88 times that of the white population. These disparities are driven by factors such as the historic redlining of minority neighborhoods, environmental injustices, and a punitive approach to addressing social needs through the application of police violence and mass incarceration. A recent faculty webinar discussion on race and public health addressed many of these topics (watch here).

Two complementary student-led efforts are now underway to partner with New York City community groups to assess their experience of COVID-19 and assist with programming to help navigate the crisis, as well as existing health and social inequities exacerbated by the pandemic. Undertaken as part of master’s students’ summer practicums or as volunteer efforts, the initiatives aim to reduce health inequities among marginalized New Yorkers and to support a broader understanding of public health and health equity. Both projects follow in the tradition of community-participatory research, in which public health researchers don’t prescribe a solution but, rather, partner with community groups throughout all stages of the study.

The Citizen’s Public Health Literacy (CIPHER) project was initiated by students in the Social and Economic Determinants of Health course taught by Professor Kim Hopper. Over the summer, more than 30 students will conduct literature reviews to identify reputable information on COVID-19, work with community members to design and disseminate a community needs survey, develop online educational materials and programs, and share their perspectives through op-eds and social media. CIPHER is led by MPH students Kayleigh Barrett, Te Asia Hunter, and Peter Scheerer, with Professors Hopper and Robert Fullilove serving as faculty advisors.

A separate initiative called MENTOR (Measuring and Evaluating the Needs, Talents and Opportunities for Results), also developed out of Professor Hopper’s course, will work with community groups in Northern Manhattan to understand their experience of the pandemic, assess their unmet needs, and support community programming to meet those needs. The effort aims to be inclusive of vulnerable groups within the community, including recent immigrants, recently incarcerated individuals, racial and ethnic minorities, unhoused people, differently able people, and more. MENTOR is led by MPH students Elizabeth Shelton and George Timmins, with faculty advisor Robert Fullilove.

“The COVID-19 pandemic provides a unique opportunity to collaborate with impacted communities to produce culturally appropriate and accessible public health information during a time of heightened awareness of the importance of public health,” says Te Asia Hunter, one of CIPHER’s student leaders and a rising second-year MPH student in sociomedical sciences. “Our aim is to amplify community voices and offer reliable information not only on how best to remain COVID-free, but with the consideration for longstanding social issues that have been unmasked by the pandemic.”

Both student-led efforts build on longstanding community partnerships with Columbia Mailman School faculty, as well as recent connections forged through the COVID-19 Student Service Corps, and intend to build a foundation for future collaborations extending well beyond the summer months. Both CIPHER and MENTOR are continuing to accept student volunteers on a rolling basis. 

“Our study is framed around the understanding that community partners are more than stakeholders but are truly the experts of their own condition. Rather than superseding community narratives for educational expertise, the MENTOR study is a community-directed, student-driven initiative,” says George Timmins, the studys co-lead and a rising second-year MPH student in sociomedical sciences. “The diverse groups of the Northern Manhattan community have the knowledge to create the programs for their own flourishing. All we provide is the platform and partnership to make them a reality.”

“I am incredibly proud of our students for their ingenuity and creativity, as they have stepped up to the plate to support the health of vulnerable New Yorkers during these difficult times,” says faculty advisor Robert Fullilove, professor of sociomedical sciences and associate dean for Community and Minority Affairs. “These projects will strengthen bonds between our school and the community and put classroom learning to good work. I know our students will learn from community members as much as the community learns from them.”