The University of South Florida announced Wednesday it would provide seed funding for 14 new research projects related to the coronavirus.
The projects add to a list of more than 42 studies already underway that involve 450 researchers working through the university’s Pandemic Response Research Network. The newest studies bring USF’s total funding for those efforts to more than $1 million, the university said.
The topics being explored range from the medical issues to societal impacts of the virus.
One of the newly announced studies will examine the impact of COVID-19 related restrictions on managing Type II diabetes in light of increased food insecurity, limited mobility and isolation.
Another will partner with Carrabba’s Italian Grill and the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association to examine strategies that have helped Tampa Bay area restaurants remain resilient.
Still another will attempt to create a more portable system to make rapid antibody tests more widespread.
“Each of these projects tackles a specific shortcoming in the world’s ability to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and works to find a creative, innovative or inventive solution that can move from lab to market quickly,” said Dr. Paul Sanberg, USF’s senior vice president for research, innovation & knowledge enterprise.
One study from researchers Kristin Kosyluk and Jerome Galea in the College of Behavioral and Community Sciences will investigate the mental health toll of the pandemic on first responders.
Working with the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay, the Central Florida Behavioral Health Network and others, they plan to develop a chatbot modeled after the responses of crisis counselors answering calls. The application will help navigate people to intervention services.
The idea began when Kosyluk, who studies mental health stigma, approached Galea, who was studying using technology to connect people to mental health services. As the coronavirus exploded, they quickly realized the need was urgent.
But after consulting with community members, Kosyluk said it wasn’t a lack of programs available to help first responders, but a lack of willingness to engage.
“One of the most pervasive stereotypes is that people with mental illness are dangerous,” she said.
That, she said, often stops people from seeking help if they think it might impact others’ perception of their ability to do their job.
A chatbot, the researchers say, could gauge the intensity of the crisis and act as an intermediate step in providing some relief until someone is ready to seek other services.
Another project from researchers Constance Visovsky and Andrew Bugajski in the College of Nursing will explore a home-based rehabilitation program for COVID-19 patients with pre-existing pulmonary conditions.
The goal, Visovsky said, is to teach them pulmonary exercises and keep them from returning to the hospital, where they risk re-infection.
The impact of their study, he said, could have widespread implications.
Bugajski said he was excited that nursing, a field often thought more of in terms of practice, had been granted funding for several research projects.
Researcher Maureen Groer in the College of Nursing is working with Dr. Tara Randis from USF Health’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Department of Pediatrics to explore the impact of the virus on pregnant women.
Randis said they’ve noticed the toll COVID-19 has taken on patients in delivery rooms and neonatal intensive care units, but there is not much data on pregnant women.
“There are many pregnant women who test positive but seem healthy,” she said. “We do have some worries, as with other infections, that it’s not as it seems.”
The study plans to use mice to see if dietary intervention and gut bacteria can help.
“Our ultimate goal is to develop some sort of intervention for how a pregnant woman responds to the virus,” she said.
Visovsky said she thinks USF’s grants encouraged interdisciplinary work. Most of her line of research is in cancer work.
“You have a broader reach, and that’s what science is meant to do,” she said.