June 10, 2020

Georgetown Researchers Pivot to Study COVID-19 Pandemic

Georgetown faculty from across the university reflect on the sometimes unexpected ways the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted and influenced their work.

Professor Kathryn Sandberg working on a project in her lab.
Professor Kathryn Sandberg working on a project in her lab.

A Biomedical Perspective

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Kathryn Sandberg, a professor and vice chair for research in the Department of Medicine, found herself in a unique position. Since 2000, her lab at the Georgetown University Medical Center (GUMC) has been studying the angiotensin converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) receptor. Over the years they uncovered key facts about ACE2, including its role in conditions like chronic kidney disease and its reduced expression in female kidneys compared to male kidneys. Their discoveries took on a whole new meaning when ACE2 was found to be the receptor for SARS-CoV-2, the virus behind the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Therefore, when New York City health records showed that there were nearly twice as many COVID-19 cases in males compared to females, Sandberg was ready with a possible explanation. “If viral infectivity correlates with ACE2 expression, then higher expression levels of the ACE2 receptor could make men more vulnerable than women,” she explained. Additionally, scientists have found hypertension to be a significant risk factor leading to negative outcomes for COVID-19 patients. “Thus, higher expression levels of ACE2 in hypertension could make these individuals more susceptible to the virus and its pathogenesis,” she said.

Sandberg has since teamed up with other GUMC researchers to investigate viral infectivity and ACE2 regulation. She is also collaborating to develop a rapid screening procedure to determine which FDA-approved drugs could be studied as potential COVID-19 therapeutics. 

Centering Workers in Pandemic Response

Professor Joseph McCartin studies and teaches U.S. labor and working-class history in the College. He is also the executive director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor, Georgetown’s labor studies center on campus. According to McCartin, the COVID-19 pandemic has mobilized the initiative’s work in unanticipated ways. 

One of their projects, Bargaining for the Common Good, convenes unions and community allies to work on issues such as environmental sustainability, the housing crisis, and racial justice. “We were able to reconfigure a previously scheduled in-person conference onto Zoom and refocus it on the intersections of the COVID-19 crisis and the climate crisis,” explained McCartin. “We attracted over 500 participants, including people from the United Kingdom and Canada, and it featured numerous speakers and activists, including a keynote from Naomi Klein.”

They also held a webinar to address the impact of COVID-19 on workers around the world, an event which attracted 700 registrants and led to a subsequent webinar focusing on COVID-19’s impact on workers in Latin America. Dr. James Benton, director of the initiative's Racial Equity and Empowerment Project, has also convened webinars on the impact of COVID-19 on communities of color in Washington, DC, and on the threat the pandemic represents for the incarcerated. McCartin hopes that these events and the pandemic at large will increase the public’s awareness of the importance of workers, especially the most vulnerable.

Remember the needs and inequities that are being revealed in this moment.

McCartin said. “Resolve that the post-COVID-19 world is one that remembers the vital importance of workers whose importance is so often overlooked—those who pick up our trash and recyclables, stock our grocery shelves, deliver our mail and packages, harvest or process our food, staff our hospitals, care for the elderly, homebound, and ill, and many others—and guarantees their rights and dignity.”

Construction workers in protective gear tend rooftop greenery,
Construction workers in protective gear tend rooftop greenery,

Creating a Positive Workplace Culture

Ella Washington is a professor and management expert in the McDonough School of Business whose research focuses on diversity and inclusion. “I know how important it is for us to have work environments that are productive and healthy. We spend so much of our time at work,” she explained. “If through my research and teaching I can help make someone’s work environment better, or make a manager more empathetic to their team, then I know I contributed positively to the world and to people’s work lives.”

Washington’s area of expertise is especially relevant today, due to the pandemic’s role in intensifying existing forms of inequality. “The virus is impacting certain groups differently from other groups,” Washington explained. “That’s very in line with my research about minorities and women in the workplace, and it has informed the research questions I will explore moving forward.” 

According to Washington, creating and maintaining a positive culture will pose a major challenge for organizations during the pandemic. 

It’s easy to enact culture when you are seeing people everyday. But now that we are all virtual, everyone is responsible to support a positive work culture.

Although she believes everyone plays a role in creating and maintaining a positive workplace culture, she emphasizes that an organization’s leaders hold a special responsibility. “Leaders specifically really have to work overtime to reach out to team members and employees, encourage them, and have a level of transparency,” she said.

Why Context Matters

Emily Mendenhall is a medical anthropologist and Provost's Distinguished Associate Professor in the Science, Technology, and International Affairs (STIA) Program in the School of Foreign Service. Mendenhall's recent book, Rethinking Diabetes, focuses on how trauma, poverty, and infections like HIV contribute to and interact with diabetes. Relatedly, she works on a concept called syndemics, which explains how diseases cluster together within some populations and not others, how they interact, and what drives them. 

Mendenhall's research can help explain health inequalities in the United States revealed by COVID-19: 

Historical and systemic inequities have fueled poor health among Black and Native American communities in the United States for centuries. 

According to Mendenhall, "The affliction of COVID-19 has unleashed a societal recognition of how our oppressive society and government has had a profound impact on people's well-being. This includes not the least racism on the streets but also within health systems. Our histories of oppression are at the heart of these health disparities." 

This effort to understand how illness is perceived and experienced differently from place to place is also making an impact across the globe. 

Mendenhall has been running a National Institutes of Health-funded study in South Africa examining how infections and diabetes interact with social factors, so when coronavirus began to circle the globe, she and her team were able to quickly reach out to the study’s entire cohort in Soweto to ask how people perceived and experienced the pandemic. Her team has interviewed hundreds of people about their mental health and well-being during lockdown and is working to design phone-based intervention for telehealth mental health care.

Protecting the Vulnerable

Sean Huang, an associate professor in the Department of Health Systems Administration in the School of Nursing and Health Studies, originally studied finance and economics. However, during his graduate studies, he was introduced to health care management and policy and saw an opportunity to use his economic knowledge to improve our health care systems. He decided to focus on nursing homes. 

“Nursing homes particularly draw my attention because I can apply my financial and economic knowledge to analyze the homes, and see how they respond to regulatory policies. The study outcomes are often very meaningful, including the health condition of the very vulnerable population in our society,” explained Huang. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Huang plans to explore how nursing homes can better prepare themselves to protect the vulnerable populations housed inside. He believes this preparation is important in the event of future pandemics as well. In addition to this work, he has teamed up with physicians at Medstar Washington Hospital Center to work on a new project.

“We plan to evaluate the effectiveness of Early Warning Systems in improving COVID patients’ outcomes, measured as mortality, intubation, and length of stay in the intensive care unit,” Huang explained. 

We are hoping to find an effective clinical intervention that can save COVID patients’ lives as well as enhance productive use of valuable medical resources.