Lessons in conducting health disparities research with a pandemic in full force

Before vaccines became the focus of efforts to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, risk was the salient factor. The disparate effect the virus immediately had on Latinx and Black communities in the Bay Area pointed to types of exposure that were more pronounced and methods of harm reduction that were less pronounced in those communities. To reduce disparities and potentially cast some more light on how the virus was spreading, researchers needed to understand the specifics. 

Working with Alicia Fernandez, MD – who leads Unidos en Salud, UCSF’s COVID work testing and surveying local Latinx populations – PhD student Erika Meza and her advisor, Jacqueline Torres, PhD, strategized survey-based research they could fold in with a mass testing event in the Fruitvale district of Oakland, Calif. The group decided it would be a useful contribution to learn more about workplace exposure to COVID-19.

Lesson 1 in researching during a pandemic: Testing events, like one held in Oakland’s heavily Latinx Fruitvale neighborhood in September, are not just good opportunities to educate the public, but also to collect data to help scientists educate themselves. Fernandez’s previous research with Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo and others had pointed to certain jobs – such as construction and food service – as risk factors, so the group planned to focus on a range of occupational risks.

Lesson 2 in researching during a pandemic: Circumstances can change, so be ready to think on your feet. After being rescheduled when wildfire smoke filled the Northern California skies, the Fruitvale testing event drew a smaller crowd than expected. The research question would have to be narrowed, and qualitative interviews would replace a widely administered survey. The on-site surveys identified a good number of men who worked in the construction industry, and focused on them.

“Collaborating with an interdisciplinary group allowed us to pivot quickly into something that was still helpful in understanding workers’ perspectives on occupational risks,” Meza said.

Among their findings, the Fruitvale interviewees reported that they were working predominantly outdoors. There had been debate early on, after a Singaporean study pointed to SARS-CoV2 spread among construction workers about whether construction in dense urban areas was best described as outdoor or indoor work. The men Meza and her colleagues interviewed said they wore masks and maintained social distance at work. But some took public transportation or had to carpool from one job site to the next.

Many of the interviewees’ jobs were at small or informal businesses or self-employment. Their main source of COVID concern related to what they should do if they were exposed to the virus. They didn’t know if they would get paid sick leave or how much and whether they would still have a job when they were able to return to work.

Meza noted that these concerns will remain relevant until the pandemic is effectively over.

“These issues continue to matter if people need to take time off to get the vaccine, or as there continues to be exposure at work,” Meza said. “What they have access to is still unclear to them.”

Lesson 3 in researching during a pandemic, particularly working with marginalized groups: Share the results of your research with the participants and their community. In addition to submitting the qualitative findings for publication, Meza and her colleagues – including UC Berkeley Labor and Occupational Health Program director Laura Stock – plan to turn their findings into a one-pager in Spanish and English that points construction workers to further information on labor rights and resources.