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COVID-19 sharpens focus for Bloomberg American Health Initiative

"We have been emphasizing work that is at the intersection of our focus areas and the pandemic," says Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, director of the Bloomberg American Health Initiative. (Submitted Photo)

“We have been emphasizing work that is at the intersection of our focus areas and the pandemic,” says Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, director of the Bloomberg American Health Initiative. (Submitted Photo)

When the Bloomberg American Health Initiative was launched in 2018, no one could have predicted a global pandemic. But leaders at the initiative discovered that as the pandemic spread, its impact was greatest in many of the very issues the program was designed to address.

The core areas for the initiative are addiction and overdose, adolescent health, environmental challenges, obesity and the food system, and violence. Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, director of the Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health initiative, said many of these focus areas are extremely relevant to the pandemic.

“We have been emphasizing work that is at the intersection of our focus areas and the pandemic. We have created new grant opportunities so that we can have a direct impact with what we are currently facing,” Sharfstein said.

For example, the program funded a project that is studying air pollution and COPD hospitalizations in the context of COVID-19. Researchers are examining how the environment interacts with the virus, and thus, puts certain patients at higher risk.

Access to services was also an issue since the COVID-19 pandemic started. Many public services to drug users were reduced or eliminated altogether. The initiative is looking at how access to these services has affected that population.

Bloomberg fellows and researchers issued a report in December 2020 about the pandemic’s impact on the opioid epidemic. The report noted that drug users struggled to obtain access to harm reduction services, such as syringe service programs, as many states cut budgets for these services to combat COVID-19. According to the report, there was an increase of fatal and nonfatal overdoses in many cities and states. The report also found that those receiving treatment for opioid abuse are at higher risk for serious illness from COVID-19 as a result of chronic illnesses. Access to care is critical for these populations to get necessary testing, vaccination and educational resources in addition to evidence-based treatment.

The pandemic has also shown a disproportionate increase in deaths and suicides among black Americans. In December 2020, researchers from the Bloomberg American Health Initiative looked at suicide records from Maryland between Jan. 1, 2017, and July 7, 2020, comparing mortality rates and found that when the state was in full lockdown, the number of suicides among black Maryland residents doubled. The pandemic highlighted the disparate impact of the virus on Black Americans and other marginalized communities.

“There are interventions that we can put in place, but if we want substantial and sustainable change, then we need to address the systems that are producing these inequities in the first place,” said Janel Cubbage, a Bloomberg Fellow who co-authored the research.

Other marginalized communities have also seen that the pandemic has reduce their access to basic necessities, like food, running water and electricity.

David Harvey, a Bloomberg fellow and deputy director of the Division of Sanitation Facilities Construction at the Indian Health Service in Rockville,, worked to get the Navajo Nation access to safe drinking water. Many Navajo live without running water and travel 30 or more miles to get safe drinking water. The COVID-19 pandemic shut down many of the available resources, which them to congregate in the few available locations, thus increasing their chances of contracting the COVID-19 virus.

Harvey is working with the Navajo government and other groups to connect water lines to more Navajo Nation homes. The goal, he said in an interview with Scholastic magazine, is to one day provide water access to everyone so that no one has to haul water. The pandemic, however, halted much of these efforts so volunteers had to shift gears and find ways to deliver water instead.

The organizations were able to secure funding to assist in producing closer water access points so that the population did not have to travel as far to get safe water.

While the pandemic halted research in some areas, much of the work being conducted to address the COVID-19 public health crisis has placed an emphasis on the focus areas being addressed by the Bloomberg American Health Initiative.

“We have taken this opportunity to take our expertise – pulling fellows from their other projects or jobs, for example – to work on these focus areas and apply to the challenge of the pandemic,” Sharfstein said.