Since the COVID-19 outbreak last year, many members of the St. John’s University faculty have devoted their considerable intellectual capital to studying the effects of the virus on both the University community and the local population. Anna Gu, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Pharmacy Administration and Public Health, College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, conducted two such studies: one on COVID-19 outcomes in New York City neighborhoods, and the other on the impact felt by students, especially in the area of food insecurity.
Dr. Gu said that the unprecedented challenges faced by New York City residents and the St. John’s community due to the pandemic made these studies imperative. “I wanted to identify population subgroups that are particularly vulnerable to these challenges and find tailored approaches in response to the situation,” she added. Dr. Gu was the principal investigator for the New York City study. For the St. John’s study, she was the primary statistician and co-first author.
For the New York City study, Dr. Gu looked at all 59 community districts in the five boroughs. “We examined the relationship between epidemiology and outcomes of COVID-19 neighborhood characteristics,” she noted, adding that New York City was chosen because it is the nation’s largest and most densely populated city with a highly diverse population. “At the time of the study, patterns of environmental, health, socioeconomic, and racial disparities associated with COVID-19 outcomes were increasingly evident across the nation.”
Communities with the highest rates of COVID-19 cases, hospitalization, and mortality were disproportionally represented in Queens and the Bronx, Dr. Gu offered. Lower rates were most frequently observed in Manhattan. “Poverty, low educational attainment, and uninsured populations were among the most prominent factors that contributed to suboptimal COVID-19 outcomes in the community,” she said.
Dr. Gu added that pronounced elevations in COVID-19 levels were coupled with increased rates in obesity, diabetes, and hypertension, lack of health insurance, as well as high, premature mortality and avoidable hospitalizations in the community.
For the St. John’s study, Dr. Gu reported that since the pandemic, approximately 25 percent of respondents experienced food insecurity. These respondents were more likely to be people of color, female, ages 18–34 years, and without a bachelor’s degree.
“The majority of respondents experiencing food insecurity could not afford to eat a balanced meal, had to cut the size or skip a meal, or eat less because of budget constraints,” she said. The study also finds a significant decline in access to care and emotional well-being among St. John’s University employees and students; certain minority groups and those who experienced job disruptions have been especially impacted.
The St. John’s study was funded by the Vincentian Institute for Social Action (VISA), and Dr. Gu was grateful for the support she received from Russell J. DiGate, Ph.D., Dean, College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences.
Dr. Gu was attracted to St. John’s because of its Vincentian mission, coupled with a very diverse and inclusive environment. “The amazing location is definitely a plus,” she noted. “At St. John’s, there are great educators who love to teach and go above and beyond for their students.”