COVID-19 In Context

gloves, hand sanitizer and mask

Faculty and staff experts provide perspectives on the unfolding pandemic from a variety of disciplines.

COVID-19 In Context | Hood Magazine, Spring 2021

How has the pandemic affected mental health? Are we worse off or more resilient?

The pandemic and the ensuing quarantine have had an overwhelmingly adverse effect on mental health, for most individuals, from most walks of life. I’m currently running a study on the quarantine experiences of individuals in our mid-Atlantic region—the results, while still preliminary, are showing clear and significant increases in both anxiety and depressive symptoms. The stressors are wide ranging. Single people are experiencing social disconnection and intense isolation. Partnered couples are being forced to spend all of their time in each others’ space, often lacking privacy or “me time.” The lucky members of the workforce have been forced to work from home in an unstructured fashion, while others have been forced to risk infection as essential workers, and many have lost jobs entirely. Parents are having to work and home-school their children. Perhaps most striking is the sense of communal grief that we’re all experiencing—we have all lost our pre-pandemic life, something that we never thought possible, and that has led to a sense of drastic “un-tetheredness.” Likewise, many of us have very genuine fears of future losses—of jobs, health, and even of our own lives or the lives of our families and friends. The study I’m running does indicate that some individuals have protective factors, which make them less likely to experience the worst effects, factors like strong communication skills, natural mindfulness and good coping mechanisms. However, I think it will take many years before we recover from the traumas that we’re collectively enduring.

Andrew Campbell, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Psychology and Counseling and Director of the Master’s in Counseling Program

What best explains individual responses to COVID-19 mandates and recommendations?

Partisanship outweighs a host of other factors when it comes to attitudes and behaviors in response to the pandemic. From the perceived threat of the coronavirus back in March 2020 to mask wearing and support for the vaccine in 2021, partisanship has consistently shaped localities’ responses to the pandemic. In short, Republicans are more concerned with government actions hindering individual freedom and thus are less likely to comply with CDC guidelines, while Democrats favor greater federal oversight and coordination. Given the lack of consensus among elected officials, the two major parties have created competing narratives that have hindered our nation’s response to COVID-19. Any initial hope that a national crisis would unite our nation and end political polarization is far from realized.

Carin Robinson, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Political Science

What groups have been most affected by the pandemic and why?

The pandemic has exacerbated existing inequality in society, which means people who are marginalized are the hardest hit by the virus. For example, Black, Hispanic and Indigenous people in the U.S. experience some of the worst forms of oppression and are dying from COVID-19 at nearly three times the rate of white people, resulting in devastating cultural loss. Despite being at higher risk for contracting the virus and dying, they are not prioritized when it comes to vacci- nations. According to a new Kaiser Health News analysis of 16 states, white people are receiving the vaccine at nearly three times the rate of Black people, widening the racial gap in healthcare. Probably the most devastating thing about this pattern is that frontline healthcare workers are part of the groups most impacted by structural racism and are more likely to be exposed, get sick and die, even as they try to save the rest of the nation.

Simone Kolysh, MPH, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Sociology

What has COVID-19 revealed about public health in America?

COVID-19 has revealed that there is an ongoing need for public health initiatives, formal committees and relevant legislation on a local, state and national level in America. Further, public health should be considered a proactive approach in America and globally. Unfortunately, America has been horribly affected; the necessary public health infrastructure is not yet fully implemented to create assessment, policy development and assurance relevant to the COVID-19. However, I am hopeful that the nation is moving in that direction with a synergistic approach.

Sherita Henry, MPH, DrPH, Assistant Professor and Director of Public Health

How has the pandemic affected frontline workers and how can they be supported?

Frontline workers, many of whom were already working in under- staffed and under-resourced places before COVID-19, have been asked to do the unbearable for a year. Two recent Hood social work alumni shared with us that their hands-on work requires them to distance themselves from family members in their own homes to prevent spread. They are overworked and have had to go without sufficient personal protective equipment. Working in residential facilities means having to tell individuals with memory problems over and over why they can’t see their families. Because of strict visitor policies intended to slow the spread, social workers must tell concerned family members that “they have to watch their loved one die or suffer alone through the iPad.”

Not surprisingly, current research supports that the mental health of frontline workers has been impacted in a variety of ways. Increased reported stress, anxiety and depression related to the experience of working during the pandemic is prevalent, particularly for those working in healthcare settings. Many report feeling overwhelmed and exhausted, which can lead to experiencing compassion fatigue, burnout or PTSD. While many people have an expectation that the type of work that they do may be inherently stressful, most also have an expectation that along with self-care, stress management and occupational support, there will be periods of less stress. COVID has reframed this—frontline workers have not had a period of decreased stress in more than 10 months.

Frontline workers have been putting in long hours, making difficult decisions, lacking the ability to engage in previously enjoyable leisure activities, and managing concerns about the health and safety of loved ones. Additionally, they are at high-risk to develop symptoms of anxiety, depression and trauma-related diagnoses. Workers are doing tasks outside the normal parameters of their jobs, working harder and longer, and juggling the management of parenting and household tasks.

Access to mental health services, support with parenting, and time for and access to self-care are all necessary to support the needs of the frontline workforce. We can best support frontline workers by doing our part to stop the spread: wear a mask when in public, avoid gatherings, understand that COVID-19 and its effects are very real, and get vaccinated when approved to do so.

Catherine Breneman, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Social Work; Michelle Gricus, DSW, Assistant Professor of Social Work; and Jamie Keaton Jones, Ph.D., Visiting Assistant Professor of Social Work

Will the work landscape stay more flexible and digital in the future?

COVID-19 has had a significant impact on how we’ve worked and I expect some of that flexibility will continue with the new normalization of remote work. Employers have to be much more flexible about how they approach the work day, and they’re also closely evaluating what functions are really necessary. The pandemic has also forced employers to really consider ways to tackle work-life balance and how to uphold a level of resilience in the face of all the changes. Additionally, they are looking to recruit people with a skill set that’s adaptable to a virtual workplace. I think we will see a return of some in-person functions in the workplace, but some will remain virtual often purely due to the economical nature of digital work. Companies are finding that there’s a financial advantage and that they are able to hire people who previously may not have been able to accommodate a traditional work environment like those with young children or who don’t have the means or desire to commute. Companies are really now able to go after the most talented, best prepared and highest qualified candidates. Not only will this trend bring increased diversity to the workplace, but I think we’ll also see employees happier and able to have the jobs they really want. It will take time as people become vaccinated for businesses to recover and return to normal hiring, but when they do we’re going to see some welcomed change.  

Lisa Littlefield, Ph.D., Dean of the Catherine Filene Shouse Center for Career Development & Experiential Education

How has the pandemic affected those with a substance use disorder?

COVID-19 has illuminated gaps in our health care system as well as exposed the vulnerability among those predisposed to other health conditions. In Maryland, those with a substance use disorder have not fared well under COVID-19. According to the Maryland Department of Health, a variety of substances including methamphetamine, alcohol, and cocaine have been more heavily used in 2020 compared to 2019 as well as a spike in opioid-related overdoses. The combination of social isolation, reduced support, barriers to access care, and economic distress has created the perfect storm for those seeking help for a substance use disorder. Limitations to how many patients can be seen in medically-assisted treatment and other forms of individual and group therapies due to COVID restrictions have made access to treatment even for difficult. Additionally, the informal sector, 12-step programs, too, have had to limit their face-to-face access and have resorted to online meetings. Telehealth has now become a primary part of the delivery of behavioral health, and we will see a continuation of this into the future beyond COVID-19. The adaption to online behavioral health overall has been a positive move but does not substitute for the more intimate face-to-face interaction that typically makes up a therapeutic session. The new normal therefore will consist of some online options especially for those in rural areas but will need to be monitored to ensure that this isn’t simply a new and improved business model that nets more profit rather than an innovation to better meet the needs of those that experience barriers to access treatment.   

Jolene Sanders, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Sociology  

One of the ripple effects of the pandemic has been decreased pollution. Will we be able to sustain any of it going forward?

Societal changes caused by the pandemic have had far-reaching beneficial impacts on the environment. For example, the DC metro region has experienced reductions in such air pollutants as nitrogen and sulfur oxides, ozone and fine aerosol particles since the onset of the COVID pandemic. Greenhouse gas emissions, particularly carbon dioxide, are also reduced in our area. While some of these reductions may be due to regulatory enforcement, much of the improvement in air quality is tied to a reduction in regional traffic. As more people worked from home and conducted business in the virtual world, we have seen the environmental benefits of less commuting. I feel that workers and businesses have also found the personal and financial advantages of these new work-from-home policies. I hope and believe that these policies will out-live the pandemic and, therefore, sustain at least a portion of our pollution reduction gains into the future.

Drew Ferrier, Ph.D., Professor of Biology and Director of the Center for Coastal and Watershed Studies

What are the impacts of panic buying?

The immediate and most noticeable impact of panic buying is the scarcity of items that are normally not difficult to obtain. In a dynamic, market based economy like the U.S., this is rarely a long term problem.  The toilet paper shelves at the stores may be empty today but it will be restocked soon enough as the store's and the toilet paper factory's profit maximization motive incentivize them to restock it as soon as possible. Indeed, this is what actually happened back in April 2020. 

Sang Kim, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Economics and Management

Will the pandemic force us to look at practical solutions to issues such as food security in the future?

The pandemic has brought the issue of food security to the fore- front of everyone’s attention. Our community needs to look carefully for additional solutions to reduce food insecurity in Maryland. The pandemic has shown us how vulnerable communities can be when faced with a crisis. Overnight, hundreds of families in Frederick found themselves food insecure. A recent report from Maryland Hunger Solutions documents a surge in applications to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). In one month, between March and April 2020, there was a 400 percent increase in the number of SNAP applications. Job losses and the lack of available food (resulting from panic buying and hoarding) were to blame. Horrifyingly, food waste paradoxically increased within households who overbought, simply because they couldn’t eat the fresh food fast enough.

Stakeholders should be looking for more practical solutions to improve food security, such as self-reliance and resiliency programs, or outreach programs that teach pandemic etiquette and reduce panic buying and food waste. Providing unused green space for the community to use for collective growing programs would help provide access to fresh produce. There are many potential solutions that could effectively tackle the issue of food insecurity and we should be thinking about how to prepare our community for the next crisis. Experts predict we could see a new emergent disease capable of causing a global pandemic every 10 years. There are myriad and unpredictable ways that our planet will respond to climate change or respond to the current drastic loss of species diversity, so we better get planning for what’s to come.

Claire Hudson, M.S.’07, Coordinator of the Coastal Studies Program and Interim Manager of the Frederick Food Security Network

How has the pandemic contributed to the achievement gap in K-12?

The pandemic has helped shine a light on and exacerbated inequities in access to educational opportunities. There are stark differences in students’ access to technology and internet, especially in rural areas. Some children are spending their time in private learning pods staffed by qualified teachers; others are spending their days alone at home while their parents are at work performing essential services. Even the best school systems are struggling to stay on pace to cover the regular curriculum. We’re going to see learning gaps for years to come.

Christy Graybeal, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Education and Mathematics, and Department Chair of Education

Do you think the pandemic has permanently altered the higher education landscape?

I do believe the pandemic will have a permanent impact on higher education, both on each institution and the sector as a whole. Our faculty and students have vastly expanded their skills in using technology to teach and learn. I am sure that knowledge will continue to be used to good effect even when in-person learning can fully resume. And for some populations or programs, such as our graduate students, we are likely to see a permanent increase in fully online programs. Moving beyond pedagogy, like many other industries, there have been changes in how we provide students access to needed services, do business and how we work that have been positive and therefore will be retained. However, the loss of an individualized education and close community that is the hallmark of Hood has been challenging to our students’ academic success. They miss campus, their peers and the many experiences of campus life that make college years so special. Further, the majority of colleges that successfully resumed in-person learning were smaller private colleges. Therefore, I believe the impact of the pandemic will be to reaffirm and strengthen the value of small colleges like Hood. With regard to higher education at the macro level, unfortunately, there has been a sharp increase in the number of colleges and universities that are struggling financially and even some that have closed. The diversity of colleges and universities in the U.S. is what makes our higher education system the envy of the world, enabling students the freedom to choose the institution that will best meet their needs, so that is a real loss. Although it is hard to predict if this will be a permanent change, and I certainly hope not, there was a significant national decline in college attendance from underserved students this year. This will only widen the equity gap and thus requires our collective efforts to counteract and reverse that trend as quickly as possible.

Andrea E. Chapdelaine, Ph.D., President

Are the vaccines our ticket out of the pandemic? Will life ever return to the way it was?

The vaccine is one big ticket out of the pandemic, but we have a lot of work to do. We need people to get vaccinated, and there are still many who do not trust the process or that it can make a difference. We need a strong, well-supported public health workforce to roll out mass vaccination in communities. The vaccine is two doses, so getting all those to return for the second dose is a challenge.

We still must follow guidelines such as wearing masks, avoiding large gatherings, social distancing and hand washing. A vaccine does not suddenly halt disease spread. Experts are saying that by fall 2021, we may see some return to normalcy if we can continue to vaccinate people. Data will tell us if case rates are coming down, so good data collection and action based on the data will be of ongoing importance. I think we will always be (and need to be) more conscious of disease prevention and the need to protect each other—we are in this together.

Jennifer Cooper, DNP, RN, PHNA-BC, CNE, Assistant Professor of Nursing

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